'The Visitors': A Musing on Solitude and Solidarity

there are stars exploding around you,

and there’s nothing,

...nothing you can do.

These lyrics will be familiar to anyone who’s already gone by the Gund Gallery this semester to see The Visitors, its newest exhibition and my new absolute favorite place on campus. The line is repeated from nine different spaces around the room, in two spaces, in five, in one, cacophonous, in unison, in harmony, in echoes. It’s hard not to feel very very small while you listen, but it’s also easy to feel like part of something very very big.

For anyone who doesn’t know the installation very well yet, The Visitors is a sixty-four-minute tribute to, essentially, being human. Nine projectors are set up around the gallery, each depicting a different room in the same home, each depicting musicians with different instruments, ranging from accordion to bathwater to cello to drums to explosives. They all join in playing their own parts to the same song, by themselves but also all together at once. There’s a certain fragility in the way all of them play and sing and move, especially during solos or quieter moments, but then also a certain strength in the crescendos as their voices mix with each other.

There are two ways to go see the exhibit and I recommend both of them, multiple times if possible. The first would be to see and hear it by yourself. Find a spot on the ground and sit there for a while, or keep shifting from frame to frame. Be completely aware of the piece, look around for details and colors and expressions by the artists, or close your eyes and focus in on just one instrument. Find a favorite of the musicians (personally, I love the cellist and the drummer) and try to figure out what drew you to them. I took a notebook with me one time going in and just wrote down things I noticed—particular lyrics I loved or little ways the artists moved. There’s something about being the only person in the room that makes the piece really feel like it’s your own. I’ve caught myself singing along to the melody multiple times when I’m the only one around, or even adding my own harmonies.

As amazing as the art is by itself—and it truly is spectacular—what’s almost as important as getting to experience what the artists have to offer you is getting to experience your role in the art itself. I think I’ve noticed that the best way to view this art piece is to be there at a time when it’s busy. What made the art so incredible to me in the first place is that it was about people all alone but still all together—that juxtaposition of solitude and solidarity. Each artist is on their own and what they have to offer is unique and beautiful in itself, but the collaboration of differences is what makes the installation so awe-inspiring. This idea that the same song is being played everywhere, in different ways, and it’s a little varied with each person who plays and/or hears it, but in the end it all makes up the same song. I love the individuality, but my favorite part is the unity.

And there aren’t only nine artists. Maybe it’s the fact that the screens surround you on all four sides as you watch, maybe it’s the fact that no matter where you are inside the gallery, you’re in the middle of everything going on. Maybe I have a tendency to over-romanticize things like this. But it would seem there are a couple parallels between the musicians, all in one place all together and doing the same thing but still separate from each other, and the observers. I started to view the other people in the room with me the same way I was viewing the people on the screens, falling in love with the details as I watched. I saw girls in printed dresses twirling around to the music, couples brushing hands and smiling at each other, roommates laughing as they tried to put snapchat filters on the faces of some of the artists.

This morning I went to see the full exhibition for a fourth time, and I think my favorite moment that’s happened in the gallery so far was when a group of maybe seven of us all standing in front of the outdoor screen at the end of the piece, while the musicians (spoiler alert!) walk off into the horizon, still singing. I could almost feel all of us listening a little bit harder as the music grew ever fainter. As it faded almost completely, none of us moved any part of our bodies but our heads, turning to look back at all the now-abandoned rooms of the mansion. We started to talk about our favorite parts of the piece, or our favorite musicians, or anything else we knew about what we had just witnessed. I couldn’t name half the people in the room as I walked out with them, but it doesn’t matter. I consider them friends. It’s hard not to, after sharing moments like that, where we all felt vulnerable and strong together as the screens switched to black.

In an interview about the piece, Ragnar Kjartansson (the artist who orchestrated most of the creation of the project) described how he really wasn’t focused much on the final product. He had fallen in love with the location they used, and was looking for a chance to get back there sometime. All the other musicians who played with him on the project were some of his best friends. They shot all of the video in one take, because they wanted the sunset, but for the entire week before shooting all of the musicians stayed in the mansion, rehearsing the music and spending time together. Kjartansson explains that “the piece was kind of constructed as an excuse for the experience of doing it.” I think he always meant for it to be a shared experience, between artists and one observer at the least, but between artists and observer and observer and observer and observer, if possible. And it definitely is.

Image Credit: Annmarie Morrison