I want to tell you about one of the most moving art pieces I ever have seen, but you just have to go see it (at the Broad) because I don’t know how to explain it. “The Visitors” is an audio/visual exhibit by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson in which you walk through two dark rooms filled with nine screens, each one showing a different musician in a different room of a mansion who are all wearing headphones so they can hear each other. For an hour, we listen to them play — alone but together, glory and decay — able to evoke deep emotion across all spectrums of feeling. “Once again / I fall into / my feminine ways.” This line is repeated again and again and it’s both sorrow and redemption. It’s kind of a break-up song I guess, since he writes it around the time of his divorce, and the lyrics are based on a poem written by his ex-wife. You can watch Kjartansson talk about the work here, and there’s an interesting review of it in the Boston Globe here. The reviewer writes:
It presents itself as slackerishly devoid of ambition, but “The Visitors” — like Kjartansson’s recent marathon live performance piece at the New Museum in New York — actually heaves with a yearning for beauty, an ache for love. The ache is powered, of course, by nostalgia, but also by an urgent, aesthetic desire to throw off something felt as too much in the way of today’s artists: the burden of intellect.
In a setting that is not so much dissonant as ill-fitting — suggestive of an artistic inheritance so grand it can only be awkward — it posits the possibility of an escape from the cul-de-sac of too much history, too much civilization — and not least, too much critical thinking. It posits the possibility of a foray into true feeling.
One one hand, I hate this — the idea that “too much critical thinking” removes the possibility of “true feeling.” As if knowing, questioning, and analyzing can deaden anything but systematic oppression. But of course, there is an academic sadness — a depression felt by grad students who know too much; who’ve come to see how history repeats itself and the privileged too often lose empathy and deny other humans their humanity.
So I’m trying to decide if spending creative energy is exhausting or life giving (or both), and if art can ever be simpler than I’ve always thought. Like maybe the release of creative energy doesn’t have to be intellectual — that maybe after all this time, after all the living and thinking we do — art can reach us without us having to figure how and why it’s doing so. That finding beauty in the world — maybe even the act of searching for it — maybe that’s real too. Is this a colonialist thought? Is this a kind of pleasure I can seek because of my whiteness — the depoliticizing of art? I took pictures last week – 1,000 of them for real. Emily asked me why i was so tired when all i did was take pictures and i was like taking pictures is tiring — seeing, really seeing everything everything everything is more than we can usually handle. What do you think?
Can privileged white men even produce something beautiful that’s not empty? What does it mean to find their work this beautiful? Is this a privilege? Why is THIS the art piece I liked so much? Does critical thinking ever keep us from seeing beauty? Is apolitical beauty a kind of nostalgia/amnesia? Is art a simple pleasure? What’s the difference between enjoying pie and appreciating a properly composed photograph?