The maddest house party ever – Ragnar Kjartansson on making The Visitors

Set in the home of eccentric Americans, The Visitors is 64 hard-partying minutes of songs, cigars and sorrow. As it’s named the best artwork of the century, the artist relives its creation

Rokeby is a crumbling 43-room mansion in upstate New York, where the descendants of the grand American families the Astors and the Livingstons – as well as their bohemian friends – participate in everything from puppetry to organic farming. On one gorgeous summer evening, they gathered on the terrace while nine Icelandic musicians, including members of Múm and Sigur Ros, each took over one of the house’s rooms, from the ballroom to the bathroom. Together, they played a song that went “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways” – over and over.

The result was The Visitors by artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Named after Abba’s final album and presented as a nine-screen video installation in galleries from London’s Barbican to the Broad in LA, The Visitors mesmerised viewers, most of whom stayed for its entire 64 minutes, moved to tears of euphoria and sorrow. As the New York Times put it, the effect is “alternately tragic and joyful, meditative and clamorous, and that swells in feeling from melancholic fugue to redemptive gospel choir”. A memorial to the end of Kjartansson’s marriage, a paean to the twilight of youth, a celebration of friendship, music and America itself, The Visitors is sumptuous and profound.

So how does it feel to have made the best artwork of the century so far? It feels pretty damn good, I tell you! I’m a sucker for your communist website.

What are your memories of making The Visitors? It was a super time. I’d just been divorced and I was falling massively in love – it was like a Midsummer Night’s Dream. I first got to know Rokeby when I did a performance piece there called Folk Song. My friend knew the people who lived there. I really wanted to do something else, though the idea never really looked good on paper: just making a sentimental country song with my friends in this really great place.

Watch a video extract of The Visitors

How do residents feel about their place being immortalised? They felt good. It’s really an ode to this house and the life that’s lived there. All the places around it are now owned by super-rich Google people or they are museums. This is the only one that is super alive. It’s this hippy place, in a good way. Hippies doing pagan ceremonies, fantastic. American history is in that house. The Visitors is part of its era, though. I don’t think I’d make a piece like this now because we live in much darker times. I was in love with America, Obama was president, the whole thing is a love song to the country. There was a lot of liberal optimism in those days and that somehow is captured in the piece.

Did it take a lot of rehearsal? We stayed there for a week and me and Davíð Þór Jónsson, who plays the piano, made a plan for the song, and we spent a week in the big ballroom rehearsing, creating this sort of opus. Then we got in the cameras, set up the gear, and just went for it. We did two takes: a try-out then the take.

The repetition isn’t boring – how did you pull that off? Well, usually I really like boring repetition, but when we were arranging it we were interested in doing it in a more narrative way. The material just called for that – maybe it was the feeling of being there in this band for a week. It made us create more of an opus than a repeated loop.

How did you work out who took which role? I was really creating my dream band from the Reykjavik music scene. Everyone in there is a legend or a friend from different bands. I wanted to document this vibe in my generation. The Visitors was shot at this tender moment where our youth is just about to go. It’s almost like the last day of our youth. I was 36. Not a youth youth. But we caught the end of an era.

Sumptuous and profound … an installation view of The Visitors in New York, in 2013.
Sumptuous and profound … an installation view of The Visitors in New York, in 2013. Photograph: Farzad Owrang/Ragnar Kjartansson, courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

Were you always going to be playing the guitar in the bath? Yeah. When I go to Rokeby – and I go a lot, they’re like my American family, the Rokeby people – I still like to get into the bath and smoke a cigar. You really feel like a gilded-age person in the bathtub.

What happened after you all wandered into the horizon at the end of the video? We went back in the house and got hammered. We had a great party with the people who are on the terrace in the piece – the family that lives in the house and the tenants who live around it. We made a feast and I can remember in the early morning hours us blasting Wagner through the keytar amp. It was all very lovely.

Did you ever hear from Abba about this work, since it’s named after their final LP?Frida and Agnetha have never said anything! They probably don’t know about it. The piece has never been shown in Scandinavia, although it will be this October. The Visitors album is really hardcore melancholic Abba. There was this Icelandic death metal band called HAM who used to cover Abba songs and that’s how I got into them. My parents were hardcore socialists and of course they described Abba as bubblegum pop. [Laughs] I’m such a big Abba fan. They’re hardcore non-sellouts: Leonard Cohen did ads for Armani and Bob Dylan for Victoria’s Secret, but Abba funded the Swedish feminist party [Benny Andersson donated 1m kronor to Feminist Initiative in 2009].

This artwork has been described as ‘selfie-proof’ I think it’s a good thing that it can’t be shared online, it’s really about spatial experience. I was surprised that a lot of people watched the whole thing. I never usually intend my video pieces to be watched right through, but I suppose there’s something about the narrative and the music and the cannon part that really draws you in. The cannon was like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. That’s my favourite thing: “Bring on the cannon!”

Selfie-proof? Kjartansson with his work in Cardiff in 2014.
Selfie-proof? Kjartansson with his work in Cardiff in 2014. Photograph: Aled Llywelyn/Athena Pictures

Is The Visitors your favourite work? It has a special place in my heart, but it was such a feelgood piece that I had to make some really dark shit afterwards. No artist has a favourite piece. Maybe you can pick one when you’re really old – but it’s something I’m super proud of. It took on a life of its own.

And now it’s the best artwork of the 21st century. What the hell is that about? [Laughs uproariously] Of course nobody thinks lists like this matter – unless you’re on them.


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The best art of the 21st century
Steve McQueen in bed, Ai Weiwei in trouble, Pussy Riot in church and Ragnar Kjartansson in the bath – they’re all included in our countdown of the best art since 2000

Adrian Searle, Jonathan Jones, Sean O’Hagan and Hettie Judah

17, Sep, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Death, volcanoes and Nazis in the family: Ragnar Kjartansson, wild man of Icelandic art
He makes art in the bath, thinks Nigel Farage has a punchable face and gets together with his mum every five years to be spat on. Meet the unstoppable force that is Ragnar Kjartansson

Adrian Searle

28, Jun, 2016 @1:18 PM

Article image
Ragnar Kjartansson: troubadour, shameless romantic, marathon artist

He's staged a five-month floating concert in Venice and a 12-hour loop of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Now the Icelandic performance artist has created a bracingly dreamy installation that goes on and on and on … writes Jason Farago

Jason Farago

12, May, 2014 @5:03 PM

Article image
Prawn sex … and other future sounds of Russia
Bankrolled by an oligarch and staged in a derelict power station near Red Square, the Geometry of Now festival aims to bring Russia back to the heart of the avant-garde – with neon raves, black-robed gurus and bone-chilling industrial noise

Alex Needham

13, Mar, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Amie Siegel's Strata review – from the depths of the Earth to the heights of excess
Amie Siegel follows marble from quarry to tasteful, lifeless New York apartments. What will her cryptic excavations turn up?

Adrian Searle

23, Jan, 2017 @6:55 PM

Article image
From brutal Dubuffet to nice guy Nero: what to see as art exhibitions open
As galleries reopen their doors, we preview a visual feast that includes Rodin, Eileen Agar, Paula Rego, Matthew Barney – and an out-of-body experience in Liverpool

Adrian Searle and Jonathan Jones

14, May, 2021 @3:29 PM

Article image
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: 'My country is run by superstition'
Famous for lyrical movies featuring reincarnation and talking apes, the Thai director of Uncle Boonmee also has a political side – now he is taking on Thailand’s generals with a film about sleeping soldiers

Andrew Pulver

12, Apr, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Art provocateur Alfredo Jaar: 'I want to change the world. I fail all the time'
He fled Pinochet’s Chile and now makes art that tackles the horrors of our age, from torture to genocide. As he hits Edinburgh with sandwich boards, he explains why he’s never really happy with the results

Dominic Rushe

01, Aug, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
'I get censored four or five times a year': Paul McCarthy, art's virtuoso of vile
From inflatable excrement to a porn James Dean, McCarthy has delved into America’s dark side. But has reality finally overtaken his ketchup-smeared visions of corruption?

Eddy Frankel

04, Aug, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Jenkin van Zyl on his death-defying art: ‘Setting myself on fire was idiotic. But the shot is amazing’
He makes films filled with gore, monsters and bizarre fetishes and looks like Mr Tumnus at a techno club. Could this prosthetics-wearing, jockstrap-clad raver be the UK’s most exciting new artist?

Hettie Judah

23, Jan, 2023 @5:00 PM