The Saddest Sound Bath in the World: Ragnar Kjartansson at the Phoenix Art Museum

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (detail; 4 views), 2012, Nine-channel video.
Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (detail; 4 views), 2012, Nine-channel video. Ragnar Kjartansson
The first time I heard ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” I misheard the lyrics. As that heavenly roller disco sound swept over me, I could have sworn that the group was singing “You can dance / You can die” in the opening couplet. Three minutes and 51 seconds of sheer musical ecstasy, “Dancing Queen” was to my ears then and now the greatest pop song I’ve ever heard. It also sounded tragic: I didn’t know then that the group was essentially the Swedish Fleetwood Mac, a commercial juggernaut slowly being torn apart by divorce. It was that “You can die” mondegreen that made me hear a desperation, a yearning in the vocals that wasn’t actually there.

When the group released their eighth studio album, The Visitors, in 1981, they had become the band I thought I heard while listening to 1976’s “Dancing Queen.” Recorded in the wake of two divorces, The Visitors is a dark and somber affair. It challenges the image of ABBA as a cheery Nordic hit machine, all blinding white teeth and matching spangly outfits. The songwriting is as catchy as ever, but songs like "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" and "Slipping Through My Fingers" are suffused with melancholy. Even the album cover spelled out the sadness and loss contained in its grooves: Whereas in past album covers the band are clustered together as a united front (crammed into a helicopter for Arrival, standing in formation in coke-white suits for Super Trouper), they appear as four discrete units in The Visitors: Scattered across a dimly lit room, standing or sitting apart from each other, the four of them in their own private worlds.

The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson named his 2012 installation The Visitors after this album. Composed of nine separate screens, each projected on a separate wall in a large, dark room,The Visitors clocks in at over an hour in length. The video installation features the recording of a song written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife. The artist, soaking in a bathtub, plaintively strums a guitar and sings the song. But he isn’t alone: An ensemble of musicians plays along with him, each of them located in a different room in a sprawling, dilapidated house in the Hudson Valley. As the installation unfolds, the musicians switch rooms, a cannon gets fired off on the lawn of the house, and small actions (the lighting of a cigar, pacing around in a study) keep things dynamic and unpredictable.

The music Kjartansson and his collaborators are playing couldn’t be further removed from ABBA. Even at their saddest, ABBA couldn’t repress their innate Eurovision poppiness, whereas Kjartansson’s song is a dirge, a haunting tune brought to life by guitars, piano, drums, cellos, and strings. The timbre and vibe of the song recalls latter-day Nick Cave laments like “No More Shall We Part” or “Rings of Saturn.”

click to enlarge The Visitors, nine-channel video in the Phoenix Art Museum. - © RAGNAR KJARTANSSON; COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK AND I8 GALLERY, REYKJAVIK
The Visitors, nine-channel video in the Phoenix Art Museum.
© Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
What kinship The Visitors has with the album it takes its name from is the sense of loss and separation. Both works of art were born out of divorce, but more to the point, The Visitors installation is like walking through the sad room depicted on The Visitors LP cover. Each of the musicians is separated in their own world, playing together yet existing apart.

Kjartansson films each segment in a wide frame that makes it feel like you’re standing in the room with the people playing their instruments. The musicians act the way real musicians would when they’re recording: They listen to their headphones, they get lost in the music, they get bored, they fidget, they kill time waiting for their moment to drop back into the mix. And each of the nine channels has its own distinct audio that becomes more clear and pointed as you get closer to the screen. From a distance, each of the channels can be heard clearly, but as you focus on one that particular sound gets more full-bodied and detailed.

Kjartansson is far from the first video artist or filmmaker to experiment with multiple channels and screens. The silent filmmaker Abel Gance used a triptych screen to project the climax of his 1927 movie Napoleon, filming an elaborate finale that was meant to be played out across three different screens simultaneously. Ray and Charles Eames' 1964 short film Think was designed to play out on 14 large screens and eight small ones, each of varying sizes and shapes. Andy Warhol, when he wasn’t busy shooting eight-hour films about the Empire State Building, played with the multiscreen format with 1966’s Chelsea Girls, in which two different reels are played in tandem on dual screens).

What makes Kjartansson’s approach to multiple-channel filmmaking so unique is the durational aspect. You’re meant to linger in this nine-channel universe, to soak in the music and melancholy visuals like Kjartansson is soaking in his bathtub. There’s no focal point, no road map, nothing to tell you what you should focus your attention on. Any one of these nine people could be your entire world for an hour, if you wanted them to be.

The End – Venezia
© Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
The Visitors is currently on display as part of the Phoenix Art Museum’s "Scandinavian Pain & Other Myths." It’s one of three pieces on display for the exhibition, the other two being a neon pink sign spelling out, in all caps, "SCANDINAVIAN PAIN," and Kjartansson’s The End — Venezia painting series. Over the course of the 2009 Venice Biennale, Kjartansson made 144 paintings, a different one each day, with only a friend wearing a Speedo as the primary subject. Hung as a shifting mosaic of colors, the massive piece is a playful contrast to the stately sorrow of The Visitors. Neon colors and cheeky images of Kjartansson’s friend smoking cigarettes and singing “Idiot Wind” fill the wall. It’s a different kind of temporal art, meant to capture one person’s arc over six months.
While the neon sign and the variety of different styles and vignettes on display for The End—Venezia make enticing appetizers, The Visitors is clearly the main course. The idea of feasting on someone's misery for an hour may not sound like much fun, but a funny thing happens when you linger in the room for a while. You start to hear and see the beauty of it all, the joy and focus each musician has in doing their work, their commitment to helping a friend and fellow artist pay tribute to a meaningful, yet fading relationship, and the way that life keeps on going no matter how much time you spend singing in a bathtub feeling sorry for yourself.

In the face of terrible change and inevitability, Kjartansson chose to take his Scandinavian pain and turn it into something lovely and life-affirming. It's like ABBA never sang: "You can dance / You can die." We all have to die, but before that happens, we might as well dance as much as we can.

"Ragnar Kjartansson: Scandinavian Pain & Other Myths." On view until April 14, 2019, at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue; 602-666-7104; Admission varies by day.
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Ashley Naftule