Sink into Ragnar Kjartansson’s Soggy Serenade

In "The Visitors" the musicians are alone — but not solo


Although the band broke up three decades ago, Abba continues to reverberate across cultural frontiers. Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson has cribbed the title of the Swedish pop giants’ final album, The Visitors, recorded when the foursome was dissolving amid divorce and discord, for his nine-screen, 64-minute ensemble piece that mulls the pain of separation as it segues from silly to sublime.

Start with the bearded, pale mastermind himself, reclining in a bathtub in a run-down upstate New York mansion, his guitar dipping into the soapy water. Kjartansson’s image is projected onto one of the screens, each of which focuses on a single musician somewhere in the huge house. A banjo player tunes up, an accordionist adjusts her microphone, a guitarist settles onto the edge of a bed while a buxom woman lolls behind him. Finishing his work in one room, a technician hustles out the door only to appear moments later on another screen. Soon the players are all wearing headphones and that acute gaze of musicians everywhere awaiting their cue.

Unlike David’s Marat, the 37-year old Kjartansson has not been murdered in his bath, though he seems bereft as he begins strumming his damp instrument and singing a refrain that all the musicians take up: “Once again/ I fall into/ my feminine ways.” The words come from a poem written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife, the artist’s own divorce adding a pang reinforced by the performers’ isolation: Each musician works alone, headphones joining them in communal sound. But these aren’t feuding band members arriving in Bentleys on different days to lay down separate tracks for an engineer to knit together. Instead, the music unfurls in a single take, entwining the musicians in the ebb and flow of the simple tune while the multiple screens act like the torqued expanse of an Escher drawing. One camera focuses on an older man drowsing in a lawn chair and a disheveled chorus lounging on a white-colonnaded veranda, this exterior shot supplying quick context for gallery-goers entering at any point during the continuous loop.

After one harmonic convergence, two participants join for a toast, their glasses clinking. Kjartansson and his collaborators haven’t filmed a documentary of an event; instead, they’ve created an enveloping emotional space. Speakers arrayed throughout the gallery create a sonic environment that sets audience members wandering amid the screens, trying to match individual sounds to performances as if visitors to the mansion itself. Its shabby, spacious rooms, atmospheric as Sargent paintings, combine with the melody to rise above the sum of these bedraggled parts. Another repeated lyric straddles the cosmic and the intimate: “There are stars / exploding around you / and there’s nothing / nothing / you can do”—a sentiment echoed when the elderly gent occasionally sets off a cannon.

While it’s helpful to know of Kjartansson’s personal woes and the title’s derivation, a viewer arriving cold will still be pulled in by the unfeigned intensity of the players, perhaps tempted to invent fictions about the lissome accordionist in her revealing smock or the piano player’s fetish for hefty cigars.

Eventually the drummer leans forward, hands pressed together, as if grateful that this protracted take has arrived somewhere within the realm of what they had collectively envisioned. He stands up, subtracting his instrument from the quieting dirge. Soon the players gather around a piano with a bottle of champagne. Now, sans headphones, they all sing along to the guitar strumming of Kjartansson, risen in a red bath towel, which he momentarily doffs to sop up spilled bubbly—a jocular coda to his theme of emotional exposure. With homely bonhomie, the troupe strolls outside into the Hudson River Valley’s verdant lushness, the rolling hills, like the undulating melody, dissipating into late-summer mist.

Finally, the technician walks through empty rooms, whistling and killing cameras for the few minutes it takes the screens to go dark, conveying a sense of the manse’s sprawl. Kjartansson has exchanged the thundering sensations of the multiplex for an intimate experience, conjuring a portrayal of heartbreak leavened with the hope that you can always move on, literally and figuratively.

“The Visitors”
Luhring Augustine
531 West 24th Street

Despina Stokou

There is violence in these colorful, energetic paintings. A Greek artist who lives and works in Berlin, Despina Stokou crams her canvases with photos clipped from skin magazines, collaged texts, bursts of spray-paint, and scabby abrasions. QR codes pasted on the walls guide your smartphone to source materials, blog posts, and other digital scat. The paintings aren’t hung but are propped atop slabs of wood or rest on angle irons buttressed with C-clamps. Jagged text in one painting squawks, “I LOVE YOUR DRESS!,” the compliment belied by the porn shot forming the dot of the exclamation point.

Words get nasty here. In a nearly eight-foot-high canvas with a smeared gray ground, black letters snarl, “How is an oil painting going to protect your family when the Muslims come?” Stokou found the phrase amid reader comments appended to a CNN article about the devastation of Hurricane Sandy on the Chelsea gallery district. This philistinism recalls a quote from Sotheby’s bigwig Tobias Meyer: “The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.” There you have it—art is only worthwhile if it can provide a shield against terrorist bullets or a hedge against inflation.

The 34-year-old Stokou wrestles with her own place in the market, scrawling currency conversions of the price of her creations directly onto the walls, artist as naked commodity. Still, her harsh themes are often at odds with lovely passages of paint, such as a gold, phallic slash hovering over plummy depths. Grabbing the eyes while poking the cortex, Stokou’s canvases offer one antidote to the surfeit of decorative painting currently colonizing too many galleries.

Despina Stokou: ‘Bulletproof’
Derek Eller Gallery
615 West 27th Street

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