I wandered into the dark room at the museum and stepped through into another dimension. Sound surrounded me – soft voices lifting in song and sweet notes issuing from musical instruments. The experience of viewing The Visitors, a video art installation by Ragnar Kjartansson, haunted me long after I’d left the Dallas Museum of Art.
The piece features nine screens, eight of them showing individual musicians in separate rooms of the same house, performing the same song. They shot the ninth screen on the front porch of that house, the Rokeby mansion in New York, a historic site once owned by the Astor family.
I wandered up and down the room housing the exhibit, pausing at each projection to marvel at the beauty of the setting. The rooms in the video, with their gently fading wallpaper and antique furniture, reflected a vision of loss and regret that echoed in the lyrics of the song. Later I discovered the words were based on the poem Feminine Ways, written by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife.
The music built and swelled, rising in a crescendo then falling to whisper quiet. Standing in front of each of the life-sized screens, I felt like a voyeur, viewing ghosts instead of recordings. In one scene, a man sits on the edge of a bed, electric guitar in his lap. Behind him on the bed we see a woman’s bare back, the curve of her shoulder lifted into the lamplight. As I paused at each screen—the cello, the accordion, the pianos, the guitars—I felt as though I were the ghost, wandering through an afterlife of such intimate moments.
Art touches our soul, reminding us we are fragile and alone. At the end of the video the musicians gather in one room. They sing around the piano, the words this time joyful. One artist pops a bottle of champagne in celebration, another lights a cigar. The troupe strolls out across a broad green lawn, singing. I am left with that last image – of individual lives come together to create something beautiful.