Entertainment

Revisiting ‘The Visitors’: An oral history of Ragnar Kjartansson’s multimedia masterpiece

It was hailed as a masterpiece the moment it appeared, back in 2012. Seven years later, the Guardian made it No. 1 on a list of the 25 best artworks of the 21st century. But the past 18 months have made Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation “The Visitors” more than just great; they have recast the work as a mirror for our current moment, making it seem breathtakingly prescient.

Once in a while it happens that way: Certain artworks just rhyme with the zeitgeist. Manet’s “Olympia.” Picasso’s “Guernica.” Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death.” You can debate their merits as much as you like; what you can’t deny is the charge they get from mainlining something bigger in the culture at large.

To see “The Visitors” as the world begins its tentative and fraught emergence from a still-evolving pandemic is to realize you are in the presence of just such a work. The way Kjartansson’s immersive exhibit echoes and distills our gradual, vaccine-assisted transition from prolonged isolation to summertime resumption of social life is uncanny.

This oral history, the first in-depth account of how “The Visitors” came to be, tells the tale — in the creators’ own words — of how a now-legendary, week-long house party produced an unlikely artistic triumph. It is a story of exploding cannons, overflowing bathtubs and skinny-dipping in waterfalls; a story of bohemian exuberance and poignant heartbreak; a story that collapses a rich past into an erotic, soulful present.

Recorded in 2012 at the end of a late summer week at Rokeby, a historic estate emanating poetically faded splendor in New York’s Hudson Valley, “The Visitors” is a multiscreen video installation that shows Kjartansson performing a song with seven musician friends over the course of an entire hour. Played on a continuous loop, it has been seen by millions of viewers at galleries and museums in dozens of cities around the world, including Perth, Prague, Nashville and Washington. It is showing at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art through Aug. 15 and will be installed next in Moscow for a four-month period this fall.

To experience “The Visitors,” you walk into a darkened gallery with nine large screens, eight of which show a beautiful room at Rokeby. There’s also a view of the front porch, where a group of friends has gathered, among them the house’s owners, Ricky and Ania Aldrich. In each room, a musician plays and sings. The bearded, naked guy strumming his guitar in a bathtub is Kjartansson.

The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, singing and playing guitar in the bath at Rokeby during the recording of “The Visitors.” (Elisabet Davids)
The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, singing and playing guitar in the bath at Rokeby during the recording of “The Visitors.” (Elisabet Davids)

Connected by headphones, the musicians perform in unison. Some parts of the song are dreamy and sparse, others are more rousing, but the piece continually reverts to the chorus, with the arresting lyric: “Once again I fall into my feminine ways.” The slow, descending melody with rich harmonies sounds like this …

As you wander around the gallery (the sound coming from each room is stronger in front of its corresponding screen), the repetition of that refrain, the music and the performers’ exquisite restraint becomes hypnotic. Then, about 10 minutes before the end, the musicians take off their headphones, leave their instruments and gather around one of two grand pianos in the reception room. Champagne is uncorked, cigars are lit and the troubadours spill out of the house. The camera turns to follow them as, joined by the ad hoc choir on the porch, they cross a vast meadow in the gloaming, singing lustily all the while.

For all its preposterousness (and Kjartansson wields absurdity like some painters wield a palette knife) this rousing finale — part Beatles, part Chekhov — has the feeling of a great thaw, a lifting of the siege. Part of its genius is that the performers’ movements are unconsciously echoed by the audience: For most of the hour, you and the other viewers have been dispersed around the gallery, communing with the music in solitude. But as the rooms are evacuated, the audience “follows” the performers, naturally congregating in front of the screen showing their reunion. Huddling together in the dark, united by curiosity and whatever strange spell has been cast, you watch on in a shared state of baffled joy.

Kjartansson, 45, acknowledges the additional layers of meaning his work has taken on recently but says he is as confounded by the success of “The Visitors” as anyone. “That’s what’s crazy about this piece,” he told me on a Zoom call last winter. “It’s a bunch of Icelandic White kids being drunk in some fancy mansion and playing mediocre country. … It’s weird that it actually works.”

Don’t be deceived. Kjartansson is an astute artist, and his collaborators include some of Iceland’s most talented and creative composers and musicians. They are known for their work in bands such as Sigur Rós and Múm, for their film scores and for other collaborations with Kjartansson.

In Zoom interviews conducted over several months, I spoke separately to all of the musicians who performed in “The Visitors,” as well as the homeowners and key people who assisted in the making of this 21st-century masterpiece.

Still singing, the musicians who performed inside the house join up with those in the choir of peasants on the outside porch. Together, as the sun goes down, they walk across the meadow toward the Hudson River. (Elisabet Davids)
Still singing, the musicians who performed inside the house join up with those in the choir of peasants on the outside porch. Together, as the sun goes down, they walk across the meadow toward the Hudson River. (Elisabet Davids)

Act I. Laying the groundwork

As a child, Ragnar Kjartansson would watch from the theater wings as his parents — famous actors in Iceland — rehearsed the same scenes again and again. He later described the feeling as “divine boredom.” By the time he graduated from the Iceland University of the Arts in Reykjavik in 2001, Kjartansson’s theatrical upbringing had merged with an interest in performance art, as practiced by the likes of Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman. Above all, though, he loved music.

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Ragnar Kjartansson Artist and co-composer of the music who plays acoustic guitar in the bath in “The Visitors”

You only do a piece like this once in your life. You don’t want to strive to make pieces that are loved by everyone. Then you’re f—ed. But it’s fantastic to have made a piece that people love and everybody can relate to. It’s fantastic.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson Co-composer of the music who plays piano, harmonica and hurdy gurdy in “The Visitors”

In 2007, Ragnar had this idea. He wanted to make an ongoing, choruslike song, a little mantra that would go on and on, and not change much. He wanted to do it Tony Bennett-style, Frank Sinatra-style. You would see this young, beautiful man and an orchestra, then you would see a jazz trio and a harp. That became the first video piece we did together.

Repetition was a way for Kjartansson to turn performance into bliss, often via the absurd. A willingness “to linger in the beautiful foolishness of things” (as the Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura put it) became central to his sensibility. In 2011, he and Jónsson persuaded a cast of professional opera singers to repeat — in costume and without breaking character — the same three-minute aria from the end of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” for 12 hours. The aria’s lyrics, which suggest the superior kindness of women and were sung more than 200 times, spoke to Kjartansson’s long-standing interest in feminism.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

We began to do these endurance performances. We went to northern Italy to do Schumann for eight hours a day, 10 days in a row. We then did Mozart for 12 hours in New York. Making these pieces has destroyed my sense of time. I go onstage and I play an hour and it feels like five minutes because I’ve been doing these six-hour, 12-hour performances. It’s given birth to something.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

Feminism has been very vibrant in Iceland in the last 40 years. People used to talk a lot about “What is feminine? What is masculine? And what is bulls—?” Most of it is bulls—. A good friend of mine always says, “You just need to be a woman to be an artist. The artistic side is your feminine side.”

“The Visitors” had grown out of a long history of friendships and reciprocal influences. Kjartansson wrote the music, which he has described as “a feminine nihilistic gospel song,” with Jonsson, piecing together the lyrics from phrases written by the performance artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s wife until their separation in 2012.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

Davíð and I wrote the basics of the song in 2010 when he and I and Ásdís were working on a radio play in an artists’ residency on Long Island called Watermill. The song’s lyrics were all based on performance and video pieces by Ásdís. They had these “wow!” sentences, like: “There are stars exploding and there’s nothing you can do.” They all got sampled in my head and the song became a collage celebrating Ásdís’s works.

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Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir Performance and video artist who provided the lyrics and ex-wife of Kjartansson

All the sentences that I wrote were made to be cut and spliced together. You could say one sentence and answer with another and they would always work together. Every sentence was meant to be like the last sentence in a play, like a dramatic finale.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

We worked on it again in the summer of 2012 during the nighttime. We were there with Ásdís and their almost 2-year-old daughter and we were supposed to be practicing a theater piece with Ragnar’s mother. We were singing “Once again … I fall into … my …. feminine … ways,” half-whispering it, because we didn’t want to wake anyone up. We were like two young girls trying to make a song.

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Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir See bio arrow-right

The main lyric in the song — “once again I fall into my feminine ways” — was from a performance I did in Iceland. Each time I did the performance, I would ask my friend, the curator, to take a full bucket of water and spill it over me so there would be a more dramatic effect. When I was writing the text, I was thinking about how sometimes women, when they fall in love, are more ready to leave everything behind and travel to follow their hearts.

The house at Rokeby, where “The Visitors” was filmed, is near Bard College on the Hudson River. It was built between 1811 and 1815 by John Armstrong Jr., President James Madison’s secretary of war during the War of 1812. Armstrong was held responsible for failing to defend Washington, which was subsequently burned. He retired to Rokeby (then called “La Bergerie”). By the time Ricky Aldrich and his two younger siblings inherited it in 1963, Rokeby was rundown. Ricky and his Polish wife, Ania, share Rokeby today with relatives. The house continues to attract artists, musicians and miscellaneous guests.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

My friend Markús Þór Andrésson, who was doing a graduation show at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, knew that a place like Rokeby was my biggest fantasy. When I was an exchange student in Sweden, I lived with an old aunt who lived in a crumbling castle outside of Stockholm. It’s fantastic when these romantic places are actually real. I’m a total sucker for them. But Rokeby was beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

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Ania Aldrich Artist who lives at Rokeby and is married to Ricky Aldrich

Markús calls me and says, “I’m doing my graduation project at Bard and I want to bring my friend Ragnar from Iceland to do a performance. I have no place to put them.” I said, “You can put them here but I’m not going to change my behavior just because I have strangers in the house. If I’m fighting with Ricky, they just have to ignore it.”

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

After staying there for a few weeks [in 2007], I started to fantasize. You almost make these pieces just to have an excuse to hang out there and be in the adventure that is Rokeby.

The house at Rokeby where “The Visitors” was filmed, with Ricky Aldrich, the co-owner, kneeling as he prepares an antique cannon, which is fired twice during the 64-minute recording. (Elisabet Davids)
The house at Rokeby where “The Visitors” was filmed, with Ricky Aldrich, the co-owner, kneeling as he prepares an antique cannon, which is fired twice during the 64-minute recording. (Elisabet Davids)

Act II. Settling in at Rokeby

For several years, Kjartansson returned to Rokeby, sometimes with his musical friends. By 2012, his idea for “The Visitors” had fully developed, and the troupe descended on the house in August.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal Drummer in “The Visitors”

We arrived with a small bang. We flew into New York. We got into the middle of town where they had rented this big van for about eight people. I’ve never driven in New York. Getting out of Manhattan alive with all these people was one of the biggest miracles I’ve ever pulled off. But then it starts to get dark and it’s raining, and of course, we got lost. So we were driving for two or three hours extra, trying to find a way back onto the highway.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

We got terribly drunk on that bus.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

It was like a funny movie scene. We came — vrrrr! — to a stop [in front of the house] and people rolled out. It must have been a funny sight.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

Davíð was like, “Hello!” and straightaway dropped the whisky bottle, which was supposed to be a gift, on the porch.

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Ania Aldrich See bio arrow-right

They arrived late. I was waiting. I was like, “Oh my God, that was expensive whisky!” In retrospect, I think it was a gift to the gods.

The first days were spent rehearsing, exploring and soaking up Rokeby’s ambiance.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

So this big, strange house took us in.

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Alex Kahn Visual artist who plays guitar and leads the “Peasants’ Choir” on the porch

The piece itself was about creating a sense of a house that invites in this unknown, ever-shifting cohort of people who enmesh themselves in the history of the house. That’s exactly what it was in real life.

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Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir Singer-songwriter who plays the accordion and acoustic guitar in “The Visitors”

I instantly felt so at home in Rokeby. I remember on my first visit I sat down at the grand piano. The sun was going down, I was playing, and Ania said, “Living in a place like this so often makes you think how life here should be. Right now, when you were playing, it was like that.”

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Ólafur Jónsson Plays electric guitar in “The Visitors”

It was the first time in the States for me. It was a kind of cloudy, magical, movielike experience.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

It almost felt like we were kids doing something we shouldn’t be doing, sneaking off, trying to go up this staircase, down this hallway …

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

Ricky and Ania are like characters from a Russian novel. They’re larger than life. Rokeby is a bohemian castle and they’re the king and queen of Bohemia.

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Ricky Aldrich Co-owner of Rokeby and in charge of firing the cannon in “The Visitors”

For a moment, we were a location in the art world. It didn’t mean much to me, but it was fun. I just carried on as normal.

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Hákon Sverrisson AP and whistling cameraman

The mattress I slept on was made from horsehair. There was no air conditioning. It was very visceral, like what it must have been like on these farms 300 years ago.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

We stayed up really late, drinking and talking, making music and wandering around, letting the house just swallow us. Everything is a bit rundown. The paint is cracked, there’s dust, and the furniture is broken a little bit.

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Jacqueline Falcone Independent curator and baker who prepared the meals at Rokeby

We were dancing one night and Ricky said, “You can play records if you want.” He pointed over to a phonograph in the corner. We said, “Really? We can touch that?” And he was like, “Yeah, it’s fine.” I looked at it and said, “Well, this is an Edison. That’s crazy. It must be super old.” And he was like, “Oh, yeah, he used to come here all the time.” It was a gift to the family from Thomas Edison.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

There were these two huge Steinway pianos. I think both of them have been there for 100 years.

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Chris McDonald Recording engineer in charge of mixing and mastering the sound

We’d just done some rehearsals. Everyone was amped up and someone said, “I know the perfect way to relax. There’s this awesome waterfall, we can go skinny-dipping.” It turned out to be on the Bard campus. We thought school was out, so no one would be there. But actually quite a few parents were dropping off their kids for the first time and some of them had taken a nice long walk through the woods. They came upon this rowdy pack of a dozen crazy people naked in a waterfall. I think their kids were, like, “Yes! College!”

Relationships among the performers, the crew and the various visitors became deeper as the days passed.

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Alex Kahn See bio arrow-right

It was such an interesting cross-section of personalities. Ragnar wanted a little chaos in the mix.

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Jacqueline Falcone See bio arrow-right

Ragnar needs to work with people he’s amazed by. And there’s nobody that can’t have fun with Davíð. The two are like brothers. Their chemistry together is explosive.

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Shahzad Ismaily Multi-instrumentalist who plays the banjo and electric guitar in “The Visitors”

In May or June of that year, I began a courtship with this wonderful woman from Iceland, Gyða Valtysdóttir. She said, “Hey, I’m doing this art piece in Upstate New York in the summer. You should come and hang out and be with me during that time.”

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

Gyða had said, “I really think you should invite my boyfriend, too. He’s really good.” I was like, “Invite your boyfriend? Really? Is that a good idea?” Then I Googled Shahzad Ismaily and I was like, “Oh, yes please! Can you invite your boyfriend?”

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Gyða Valtýsdóttir Composer and multi-instrumentalist who plays the cello in “The Visitors”

It was this group of Icelanders. And then my partner [Shahzad] came in and he said, “Can I bring my mom?” It was kind of like, “No,” he couldn’t really. But he brought her anyway — and her brother. They’re both Pakistani. So I didn’t just show up myself but with a whole extended family. I was probably feeling a little bit guilty and trying to take care of everybody. I was meeting Shahzad’s mother for the first time.

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Malika Taj Ismaily Retired doctor and Shahzad Ismaily’s mother who is part of the choir on the porch

It was a pleasure for me to be around those people. The musicians are very broad-minded and free, which is an excellent thing to be.

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Shahzad Ismaily See bio arrow-right

In retrospect, it was adorable, because here’s a strongly Icelandic-identifying group of people. I’m the one non-Icelander. I was also the only non-White kid in the little town where I grew up, and I have a physical deformity that’s based on a genetic condition I had called ectodermal dysplasia. I have a strong experience of difference, of being vilified or removed or objectified through harassment or teasing. So I have an allergy to people saying: “You are an apple, you are not an apple; you belong here, you belong elsewhere.”

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

I think Shahzad and his family being there somehow took it out of this claustrophobic Icelandic scene.

Kjartansson and Gunnarsdóttir had separated two months earlier. “The Visitors” ended up being named after ABBA’s final album, which was recorded soon after the legendary Swedish group’s two couples had split up.

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Chris McDonald See bio arrow-right

I actually didn’t know [Ragnar and Ásdís] had broken up. We had just done a piece in Pittsburgh. Ásdís was there, and they had just had their daughter. All of a sudden Ragnar was not very fun to be with, and I could not figure out what was going on. I drove to their apartment to pick them up and it was dead silence in the car. I just didn’t put it together. Then when we were at the dinner table at Rokeby, I said, “It’s too bad that Ásdís couldn’t make it.” And Ragnar was like, “We got a divorce.”

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Jacqueline Falcone See bio arrow-right

I didn’t really realize the extent to which Ragnar was a hometown hero, a famous dude, until I got to Reykjavik. His and Ásdís’s divorce was all over their version of People magazine, with a tear in the middle of the photo.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

The separation from Ásdís was still resonating. We had split up in June and this was filmed in August. But honestly, it was the opposite of hard times. I think we were both really relieved to be split up. I had fallen completely in love with Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, who’s now my wife. There is that contradiction within. It was actually all done in the bliss of being in love and I think that gave me this ridiculous confidence and vision to pull it off. It was not like, “Oh no, I’m getting divorced.” It was like, [shouts] “Life is happening!”

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

Life is happening through all the creativity, and you reflect your life into the work as you do it.

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Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir See bio arrow-right

We decided to separate but I don’t think people got to know until a month or two later. Even then, we were still doing things together. But we didn’t collaborate very much after the divorce.

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Shahzad Ismaily See bio arrow-right

I was on the opposite side of all that because I was just starting something, with Gyða. I went through some very hard spaces later: separating for a while, coming back together. At the time, I thought: What a beautiful way, with ceremony, to end a relationship. Most of us end relationships with some level of chaos and discomfort. Very few of us are aware enough or artistic enough to end a relationship with a sense of ceremony that not only might provide closure, but also actual beauty.

Creating art in someone else’s house can be fraught. One incident almost led to disaster.

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Chris McDonald See bio arrow-right

Ragnar decided to do a “bath rehearsal” one day. I was doing a soundcheck for the rooms with no one in them. Everyone was outside, so it was quiet. I thought, “Goddamn it, there’s something wrong. What room is that coming from?” And then I was like, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God!” I ran upstairs where Ragnar had turned on the bathtub. It was overflowing and leaking through the ceiling.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

I was scatterbrained. I could have destroyed the house. Gracious Ricky and Ania were like, “No worries.”

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Ania Aldrich See bio arrow-right

Our plumbing is really old. We had redone the ceiling, so we were like, “Okay, let’s not have any leaks.”

The performers meshed the rhythms of daily life at Rokeby with lengthy but deliberately loose rehearsals.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

It felt like a vacation but, at the back of our minds, we knew we had to somehow create the circumstances that would allow people to settle in and “accidentally” stumble onto an instrument and start playing. That would be the essence of it.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

Ragnar came up with these drawings, almost like a treasure map. Each of us got one.

Ragnar Kjartansson's score for “The Visitors,” 2012. (Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik)
Ragnar Kjartansson’s score for “The Visitors,” 2012. (Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik)
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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

I couldn’t write a score for it, like, “This is your part, we have a 4/4 beat, it’s allegro, and then an adagio, and then this is in B major.” It had to be an art piece. So, on a huge canvas, Ragnar drew what would be the structure and the form and the story of the song. We tried to convey to the musicians that it would be really open. So, if you wanted to, you could decide to stop playing the drums and just think abstractly and enjoy the room, you know?

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Shahzad Ismaily See bio arrow-right

We collected in one of the main spaces, with amps and drums and instruments all around, and we played through the song over and over for hours. It’s basically a three-minute object. But we would do these eight-hour rehearsals. We would go for two or three hours, take a break, eat some food; three or four hours, take a break, eat some more food.

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Kjartan Sveinsson Composer, former member of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós who plays piano and bass guitar in “The Visitors”

But we didn’t rehearse too much because then you get stuck repeating what you do every time.

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Gyða Valtýsdóttir See bio arrow-right

A part of it is also having dinner and listening to albums and dancing. That felt like it was part of the rehearsals. It was the art of living.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

We were listening to such different music: Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and “Tristan and Isolde”; Townes Van Zandt and B.B. King; Stockhausen and David Bowie. The horizontal line, musically, with Ragnar, is endless. That’s why we ended up doing a slow country and western song, with him in a bath and me smoking downstairs playing an old grand piano. For me, to think about it is absurd.

Act III. Shooting for something magical

In a nod to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the performance was to be punctuated at its two most climactic moments by the firing of a small, antique cannon. Getting the timing right required days of trial and error.

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Jacqueline Falcone See bio arrow-right

One morning I was up early, and Ricky asked me if I wanted to go into town with him and get gunpowder.

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Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir See bio arrow-right

Exploding this really old cannon was another part of everything in this old house coming alive. Nobody had shot this cannon for ages.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

There are all these stories about how this cannon was shot at these ’60s parties they had at Rokeby, with Bob Dylan showing up and whatnot.

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Ricky Aldrich See bio arrow-right

The cannon recoiled about six feet. There was a fellow who was drunk … and he almost lost a foot, but [the cannonball] went between his legs. No one paid much attention since everyone was having a good time. We just fired again!

Both the scale and the age of the house meant that Chris McDonald, who was in charge of audio, Tómas Tómasson, the cinematographer, and his assistant Hákon Sverrisson had to overcome numerous technical challenges to fulfill Kjartansson’s vision. Tension increased as the performance drew closer.

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Shahzad Ismaily See bio arrow-right

If Ragnar felt pressure, he never showed it.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

But this is the luxury of being a visual artist: If there is a mistake, if it’s a failure, that’s artistic! That’s the artistic statement, right? If it f—s up, then it f—s up. We’ll find out!

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Ania Aldrich See bio arrow-right

Ragnar leads very softly. He has incredible enthusiasm and optimism. He’s willing to roll with the punches.

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Chris McDonald See bio arrow-right

I remember definitely a few times over the course of the shooting being almost on the verge of tears, thinking, “Oh my God, it’s not going to work. And if it doesn’t work, it’s my fault, because everything else is looking really good.” In the end it comes down to: Does some stupid piece of equipment crash?

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Tómas Örn Tómasson Cinematographer in charge of the video recording

We set everything up on the day we recorded. The cameras we’d rented came the day before. I had my two assistants with me synchronizing them all. It was very well planned. But still, on the day, it’s like having a premiere at the theater. You never know what’s going to happen.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

I didn’t have so many technical worries because I really trust Chris and Tómas, the cinematographer. I thought, “They’ll figure it out.” My worry was mainly, “What if this is s—? Is this just us playing a sentimental song in a house?”

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Alex Kahn See bio arrow-right

I remember moments when I thought Ragnar was beginning to fray a little. The porch was like a carnival atmosphere. There were dogs barking and running in and out of the house. Ragnar was beginning to get exasperated.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

I think Ania sensed some fear of this all falling apart. So she did this pagan ceremony, blessing the cameras and the sound equipment.

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Ania Aldrich See bio arrow-right

I had a big cigar made out of sage. You light it and you blow it out so it’s only smoke, and then you go around and pass it over a person’s head, front, back and hands. I might have smudged some instruments, too.

Finally, with everyone in place, a hush descended on the house and the performance began.

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Gyða Valtýsdóttir See bio arrow-right

We had been spending all this time together and this was the first time we were each alone in a room. So maybe there was a vulnerability that also plays a role in the piece. You’re isolated and you’re trying to hear the others, but you can’t see anyone. You just try your best to stay in the magic of the realm you’ve created together over the week, and not to let the camera lens break the spell.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

It was easy rehearsing in the living room because I could give cues like a conductor. But in the piece, we’re scattered throughout the house and I couldn’t give any cues. That was the most challenging thing. It’s a simple song, but the magic of music, which happens in between people, sometimes happens when you’re not playing. This is what the musical world has been missing during the pandemic because everything is done separately.

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Ólafur Jónsson See bio arrow-right

We did two run-throughs. They felt totally alike. But you felt the second one was destined to be the one.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

In my memory, the take we did was like a meditation. When something clicks, it feels so good. I played really light. When I watch it, I can see myself getting overwhelmed, tears flowing. I’m almost losing it. It was like I was listening to something else. I think it was … bliss.

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

I remember being in the bathtub and hearing the cannon go off and I realized, “This is actually happening. We’re actually shooting this!”

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Shahzad Ismaily See bio arrow-right

I had the feeling that if I closed my eyes we would all be almost physically coalescing around this sound, which I knew was being made by a person I could picture in a certain place in the house. In your mind’s eye, you move toward people and toward a new architecture of sound.

Toward the end of the hour-long song, as the chorus repeats, each performer leaves the room they are in to gather downstairs in the drawing room.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

We talked about how we should meet downstairs and then walk out. Óli was to wake up with Jacqueline, who was lying in the bed. It was a bit romantic. The atmosphere was loving. They met me and I walked down the stairs with them and we all showed up in the big room. Ragnar was there in the [bath] towel and someone had champagne and cigars and yet we kept on singing. Then Ragnar opened the door and we walked out.

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Ania Aldrich See bio arrow-right

A friend told me he was absolutely disgusted that Ragnar took off his towel and was naked. I said, “Well, yeah! He took off his towel to wipe spilled champagne from the floor.” I’m very happy he did that! He takes care of the damage. Never mind that he was naked for a few seconds.

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Tómas Örn Tómasson See bio arrow-right

At the end, my assistant Hakon goes around and turns off all the cameras, and he’s whistling the song, like a serial killer, turning them off one by one. That was not planned at all.

Act IV. A time to remember

With the performance over, the celebrations began.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

The feeling at the end was … victorious. It was beautiful.

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Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir See bio arrow-right

It was like the performance was just the foreplay for the real grand finale.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

We had no clear idea of what we had made, but the feeling was that we had actually done what we came to do. So it escalates into the night and into a fire … a tension release.

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Chris McDonald See bio arrow-right

It was madness. Full-blown revelry. It started at the end of the piece, everyone running around outside. And it ramped up until dawn.

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Þorvaldur Gröndal See bio arrow-right

Ania was in the kitchen. Everyone was drinking outside on the porch. Spirits were high, and then something happened. We heard that she had dropped this big knife onto her foot. Everything stopped. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but she went into shock. … We had to call 911, and it was police and ambulance and crazy commotion. But then we carried on. It was kind of fitting to the whole experience.

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Ania Aldrich See bio arrow-right

There was a very sharp knife, which fell and cut deeply into my foot. … Afterward I thought, “Well, that was also a sacrificial thing, like the broken whisky bottle at the beginning, this time at the end.”

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Ragnar Kjartansson See bio arrow-right

It was all very traumatic and cinematic. But then everything was okay and Ania went upstairs to watch “Downton Abbey.” The party continued, and at daybreak, we blasted Wagner through a guitar amplifier we took out into the field, looking at dawn breaking on the Catskills.

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Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir See bio arrow-right

The next day, we drove to this waterfall that we had bathed in a couple of years earlier, and all of a sudden we’re all singing and taking our clothes off and bathing in the waterfall. The energy from the performance just stayed. When we came back from the waterfall, it was like, “Wow, how wonderful life can be!”

The performers dispersed and reunited three months later at the Migros Museum in Zurich for the premiere of “The Visitors.” When it moved next to Luhring Augustine, Kjartansson’s New York gallery, it quickly became the talk of the town.

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Chris McDonald See bio arrow-right

We all showed up again in Zurich for the opening. One by one we came into the room and people started crying.

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Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir See bio arrow-right

It makes me really happy to see it. It’s so nice to hear your words sung. When I walked through the piece, I only regretted not being in it.

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Jacqueline Falcone See bio arrow-right

Ásdís’s presence was very much there. It’s in the work, but it’s also in the energy of the people there.

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Roland Augustine Co-owner of New York’s Luhring Augustine gallery and Kjartansson’s U.S. art dealer

So much of Ragnar’s work is about the feminine voice. I think of his piece “Bliss,” which was first performed in 2011. The concluding aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is all about the count pleading forgiveness for his infidelity and she’s responding by saying, “I forgive you, because I am kinder than you.” In my mind, it’s a parallel to what Ragnar achieved in “The Visitors”: that same sense of pathos, that same sense of irony. And I always come back to the idea of him in the bathtub. He is the lead character — and he’s reduced himself to this buffoon in the bathtub! It’s so humbling.

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Shahzad Ismaily See bio arrow-right

When you’re in Ragnar’s company, you can tell that he’s playing with the world. There is humor and lightness. But what’s interesting, perversely, is that this is exactly how you get to the deepest space. If you’re lighthearted and have a sense of humor, then you open a portal to a vulnerable place inside yourself.

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Ania Aldrich See bio arrow-right

I saw it with my niece in New York and I remember her standing next to me and crying. And I said, “Why are you crying?” She said, “Because this is how life ought to be. This is the way it always should be.”

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Hákon Sverrisson See bio arrow-right

I’ve worked in this business for 27 years. Very, very occasionally, you hit some kind of magic. It was such a pure experience. It was so serene. Painful, too, and yet beautiful. What’s amazing is that those emotions seem to be delivered to the public somehow.

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Davíð Þór Jónsson See bio arrow-right

I was really happy that people were moved. I’m also happy when people walk out, when they can’t bear to see it. Then I know something is there.

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Hákon Sverrisson See bio arrow-right

When I look back on life, I’m pretty sure that this piece, that week, will be something that I will remember on my deathbed. It’s one of those things — a beautiful kiss from the universe. It sounds sappy. But it was a gift.

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Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir See bio arrow-right

Afterward, we joked about the abuse of offering such an experience. Because when you go back to your everyday life you now have this huge contrast. You’ve been naked in waterfalls and bursting out in song and then it’s like, “Oh.”

About this story

Editing by Janice Page and Amy Hitt. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Photo research by Moira Haney and Kelsey Ables. Copy editing by Wayne Lockwood. Video editing by Allie Caren. Design and development by Gabriel Florit and Joanne Lee. Interactive graphics by Counterpoint.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/interactive/2021/the-visitors-ragnar-kjartansson-oral-history/ | Revisiting ‘The Visitors’: An oral history of Ragnar Kjartansson’s multimedia masterpiece

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