For some, the prospect of devoting 64 minutes to a piece of video art holds about the same appeal as getting a cavity filled.
The investment-to-reward ratio for such demanding work, much of which can be wildly esoteric, self-serious or otherwise inaccessible to the point of total numbness, has been fairly low for all but the most committed devotees of the form.
Which is why “The Visitors,” Ragnar Kjartansson’s moving and visually stunning hourlong music video now playing on nine screens in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, is probably not on the top of most moviegoers’ lists, if it is on their list at all. But it should be.
The piece, which has collected accolades from the art world and far beyond since it was filmed on a gorgeous Hudson Valley estate in 2012, is an addictive and at points transcendent argument to give video art another shot. For those with more patience than the average American cinema fan, the work is a powerful affirmation of the form’s power and a hint at its potential as technology finally catches up with the imaginations of artists.
The piece, set to a melodic score in which lyrics are sung in harmony by musicians positioned in nine disconnected locations throughout the estate and connected by headphones, offers viewers many levels of appreciation. Each scene is lit and framed like a tableau vivant, through which the musicians move like spirits as they pluck piano strings, strum guitars and play accordions in unison against the fading, late-afternoon light.
The lyrics, like the music, are repetitive and simple. They crescendo into a meditative mantra which reaches ecstatic heights of intensity before resolving itself into spare and quiet chords that set the stage for another collective explosion. At a couple of points during the piece, an older gentleman and a young assistant who looks as if he had just emerged from a Civil War battlefield load and fire a cannon – a pair of loud punctuation marks on an otherwise free-flowing sentence.
I know, I know: It all sounds like some sort of hipster fever dream as styled by Urban Outfitters and directed by Lena Dunham, marinated in the strange stew of ennui and self-regard for which the millennial generation has become known. And it is that.
For about five minutes in the middle of the piece, the borderline smugness of the whole affair – with its cigar-smoking pianist and the accordion player’s affected performance – became too much. But when humor came in toward the end, this seemed like less of a sin and more of a critical look at how seriously we take ourselves or lose perspective when we’re isolated from a community.
For Rachel Adams, the relatively new UB Art Gallery curator who brought the work to Buffalo, the work speaks to ideas of solitude and wholeness in language that is instantly accessible to viewers. When she first saw the piece in the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York City in 2014, she canceled her afternoon appointments so she could watch it again.
“I was completely blown away. I knew that it was this seminal, nine-channel work, but I didn’t think it was going to affect me the way that it did that day,” Adams said. “I think when you ask somebody to sit there for an hour, you have to be able to stand completely behind it and say, this is completely worth your time. I really hope that you give it more than five minutes. I think a piece like this immediately pulls you in and it’s hard to leave because it is so gorgeous and so enveloping.”
Adams deserves great credit for bringing the piece to UB, where the avant garde gravity of the 1970s, which sometimes pushes away ideas like narrative and melody to leave only self-obfuscating concepts, is still in force.
Among its manifold charms, “The Visitors” is perhaps most appealing to me because of its acknowledged need to sell itself to a new audience. It borrows its hooks from the language of theater, painting and pop music, slyly inserts them into viewers’ brains and then pulls them along on a journey that invites rather than forces you to explore a series of complex emotional concepts. Among those concepts are the tension between comfort and solitude, between community and individuality, between anxiety and serenity.
Through the swelling and receding tide of the musical score and the superstructure of the piece, the characters in “The Visitors” are always traveling between one emotional state and its evil twin, leaning toward community when they’re alone and toward solitude when they’re together, never settling on one for long. Sort of like life.
It’s for this reason that Kjartansson’s work will more than reward the drive to Amherst and 64 minutes of your time. If you’re looking for an invitation into a world you thought might have been closed to you, this is it.