December 27, 2016

In the Field: A Visit with The Visitors

The challenges of exhibiting film and video in a gallery space is a topic on which most curators (and artists) often have a strong opinion.  This is especially true of exhibitions that are comprised almost entirely of moving image work (see the Whitney’s current Dreamlands or the New Museum’s Pipilotti Rist retrospective). The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. offers an interesting case study with its current Ragnar Kjartansson retrospective, on view until January 8, 2017. The circular layout of the museum creates an orbit-like path that pulls the viewer through a series galleries and spaces alternating between video projections, objects and the centerpiece live performance of Woman in E. This centrifugal force may seem counterintuitive when considering that much of the work relies on duration and repetition. While most of the video galleries do offer a small area to sit and watch the work, there’s still a sense that you’re being drawn toward something. I recommend taking as much time as you can to experience each work completely. The darkly comical Death and the Children, which welcomes you as you enter, makes clear that while there is not much in the way of radical politics or timely social commentary in this work, there is beauty and whimsy around every corner. The 2007 video God, which features Kjartansson crooning the phrase “Sorrow Conquers Happiness” along with a jazz ensemble accompaniment, is certainly a stand out in the show. However, if it feels like a warm-up for a main event that may not be too far off. The main event then is the stunning, transcendent The Visitors (2012) which is very much the work that you have been homing in on as you traverse the circular route. At 64 minutes and consisting of nine channels of video, this is the Icelandic art star’s cinematic masterpiece. And this is where you’ll want to park it for the entire length of the screening. Unlike the other video galleries there are no benches or seats of any kind so the urge to pass through may seem natural…don’t, instead find a spot on the floor and take in the sights and sounds. Or better yet, reposition yourself occasionally. You may even feel the need to watch it more than once from a different vantage point and discover something new about the work (or the viewers who wander into the room and experience the work for the first time). The Visitors is a film that will never be screened in a conventional cinema and therefore might go unseen by good portion of self-professed cinephiles, and yet it conjures all of the magic and artistry of cinema’s golden era (Which golden era? All of them). 

- Jesse Pires, IHP Program Curator