A Must-See in Our Pandemic Era: Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” at the High
As we look for the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, this world-renowned installation immerses viewers in an emotional experience that speaks to love, loss, connection, and isolation.
By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art
As I headed toward the darkened gallery hosting Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors, I was met with a surge of sound, a moment of crescendo in the sixty-four-minute piece. A group of visitors came spilling around the corner, some arm in arm, one young woman in tears, fanning her eyes peeking out above her mask. The combination of sound and raw human emotion got my heart beating before I even entered the room.
The Visitors, a nine-channel video piece, was actually created in 2012 under vastly different circumstances, but it’s especially poignant for audiences right now.
Although playing together in unison, the performers appear to occupy separate rooms within Rokeby Farm, a grandiose American estate from a bygone era, now in a weathered state. This unique setup of collaborating from separate spaces leads viewers to consider their own ideas about connection, isolation, love, loss, change, and the passage of time. This brings to mind the experiences we’ve all had this past year — of trying to connect from afar; of redefining our concept of home and what it means to be together; of perceiving the world through a digital, rectangular Zoom frame.
The song they perform is based on the poem “My Feminine Ways” by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir in which the refrain “once again, I fall into my feminine ways” is sung repeatedly over a haunting and beautiful melody. Although the phrase is constantly repeated for over an hour, its emotional power never dissipates. The music slows down, speeds up, gets louder, then quieter — and all along the way, the feeling is sustained. It’s strung along, tangling, unfurling, swelling, equally as impactful in the booming choruses as in the deeply quiet moments. This echoes our time in quarantine, a protracted year of taking things day by day but never feeling as though the urgency and stress subside.
As the piece comes to a close, the rooms are vacated one by one. We’re left to ponder the empty spaces, resounding with the recent presences, and the presences of past generations. Finally, the musicians reunite and march off together downhill into a wide, open landscape, walls no longer dividing them. The finale feels like a proverbial “walk into the sunset.” It’s the end of an era, and a start to a new one.
As we begin to exit this phase of the pandemic, there is so much processing left to do — and artworks are here to help you access your thoughts and feelings along the way. I hope you find something therapeutic as you let yourself feel, reflect, and commune with The Visitors.