Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Garden of Art: 'The Visitors'

            Want to hear some great music? Go to an art museum.
            A performance artist from Iceland named Ragnar Kjartansson got together with about eight of his closest friends (which admittedly sounds like a joke) and created a piece that's more ethereally beautiful than any attempt at description can possibly suggest.
            The performance piece is called "The Visitors" and it's currently on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. If you haven't been to this museum, the building itself is worth the price of admission plus parking in a nearby waterfront district lot (a piece of pure urban larceny). The site is especially fetching in the summer when you look out over the harbor from a number of perspectives inside the building or sit outdoors on the steps.
            A visit to "The Visitors" left me with this question: Why shouldn't performance art be sensually ravishing and spiritually nourishing? Instead of merely in-your-face provocative,  thought-provoking at best, crude at worst, politically strident -- and all sorts of personally poking and probing -- as it usually is? Other uses of this relatively new hybrid art medium, borrowing from dance, theater, comedy, buffoonery, exhibitionism, action painting, mime, cross-dressing, installation art, video, media art, computer art and all other forms of visual arts (OK music and spoken word as well) may be equally valid. But the confrontational side of performance art seems to be over-represented in most pieces, and the soul-stirring capacities of performance underfed.
            I'm not saying that Kjartansson started out by saying 'let's do something soulful and nourishing'  --but in "The Visitors" that's where he ended up.
            The show is true surround-sound. You walk into a large darkened mostly empty rounded gallery space. Light comes from the half-dozen large screens that line the perimeter wall; two wider screens are mounted back to back on a surface in the room's center. Each screen is a different, human image. We're not faced with something we have to make sense of. We know what we're seeing. In all but one a different musician is both playing an instrument or singing, or doing both. (In the other, a group of people are gathered on a big old-fashioned porch while a man in a hardhat waits under an umbrella until it's his moment to fire off an antique cannon.)
            Some of the performers switch between instruments. All are performing in real time vis-a-vis one another. Though isolated in separate chambers of a large cluttered mansion -- the ICA literature describes the place as a "romantically dilapidated farmhouse" -- without visual contact, the performers listen to each other over their earphones. They perform a single, hour-long composition in a single uninterrupted take. Pianos, guitars, drums, a cello, an accordion; an acoustic sound most of the way powering up into amplification at some points. Their vocals harmonize and trade off in intensity.
            The 'song' they sing has only a few lyrics. The same short verse -- a free-floating leitmotif offered in a mood of lyrical, rhapsodic regret -- is repeated almost without end; it switches out with a second verse at one point, then after the pace slows to a brief musical siesta, returns with an even greater, though contained fervor. The composition is both minimalist and Gospel-intense. The meaning lies much more in the feeling than whatever sense the words ("Once again/I fall back into/my feminine ways") may convey.
            It's pointless to try to explain the audience experience -- described by one reviewer as the realization that you are 'the visitors' -- any further. But it's musical in a way that catching a  favorite song calls us back to some original pleasure and sense of discovery -- and that's a rare experience to have on a first hearing of anything.
            The performers are dressed (most of them) in ordinary clothing, from nightgowns for the women to casual dude-wear for the guys. Kjartansson himself is perched in a bathtub in his birthday suit (seen above; photo credit: Luhring Augustine, New York, and 18 Gallery, Reykjavik), a board placed across the tub preserves a semblance of modesty. This naked bather cameo providing the media with an image that says "well, don't forget, this is performance art." But the total effect of the piece's set-up is the sense that a houseful of peers come together for a weekend in a big country house all get out of bed one morning (one didn't; you glimpse her back while a guitarist sits on the bed and plays)
with exactly the same idea and decide to put it into practice without extensive discussion of what they were doing or why or what it meant.
            Some of all our best days begin that way.
            For the visitors, the physical arrangement of the piece, screens all around us, sound from everywhere, does make us feel in some sense 'inside' the music, and the performance. That's probably part of the magic.