“Woman in E” by Ragnar Kjartansson (2016)
“Woman in E” by Ragnar Kjartansson (2016) Credit: Matt Dunn

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Go ahead and fall in love with “The Visitors” (2012). In this nine-channel, room-spanning video installation, now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ragnar Kjartansson makes his play for your heart. Each screen captures a different view at a historic retreat in upstate New York, where Kjartansson assembled friends from his native Iceland to perform a joyous dirge. The gang’s all here: the cellist in the loft, the accordionist in the drawing room, the chorus on the porch, among others—all of them emotive and attractive—plus the artist himself, who strums an acoustic guitar while soaking in a clawfoot bathtub. Slow to build—“The Visitors” clocks in at 64 minutes—the piece might count as a durational performance, if viewers risked any hazard enduring it. Most will find it hard to resist.

Captured in a single take, the ensemble swells in a gentle chorus whose lyrics belong to another Icelandic artist (and Kjartansson’s ex-wife), Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” If there is any dissonance in the boyish Kjartansson owning these words, it’s easy to miss and easier to forgive as his lullabye proceeds. Fans of the Charmin-soft modern folk genre popularized by the likes of Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom, and Sufjan Stevens may be particularly susceptible to Kjartansson’s spell, but nobody’s immune to the magic of immersive video. That’s the trick with Kjartansson’s bewitching work: It may all be an illusion.

“Woman in E,” the signature piece in the show, is a case in point. This one is a legit durational performance: A woman in a glittery gold dress, standing on a revolving stage inside a curtain of shimmering golden streamers, strums a single chord on an electric guitar. Several women, in fact: The Hirshhorn put out a casting call for women performers, drawing 14 names from the local music scene to stand and deliver in sequence (and sequins) during the exhibit’s 12-week run. With this piece, Kjartansson is pulling back the curtain for viewers, so to speak. There’s something mesmerizing about the project (something slightly off-putting, too) but there’s no secret to it.

Ragnar Kjartansson is the first major survey of the artist’s work in the U.S., bringing painting, performance, and gobs of video to the Hirshhorn. It’s not Kjartansson’s first foray into the States; “The Visitors” alone has screened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Luhring Augustine in New York, The Broad in Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and the University of Buffalo Art Gallery. This isn’t even Kjartansson’s first Hirshhorn appearance. So the survey—which comes courtesy of Leila Hasham, curator for the Barbican Art Gallery in London—arrives in D.C. just as Kjartansson hits his stride as an art-world darling.

This ascension happened fast, which shows in presentations of Kjartansson’s work. There’s an appreciable difference between earlier, more experimental video works and later, more ambitious performances. Mind you, this is over a career that spans just a little bit longer than a decade. Kjartansson’s appearance in the 53rd Venice Biennale, where the artist represented Iceland, no doubt facilitated his astonishing rise.

“Death and the Children” (2002), an early black-and-white piece, shows the artist wielding a scythe and leading children through a graveyard. The kids aren’t impressed with his imitation of Death. At the more recent end of the spectrum is “Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage” (2011–14), a performance that greeted viewers at the Barbican earlier this summer, which involves around a dozen men playing guitar (another durational piece, another Grizzly Bear–sounding tune) and chanting a cheesy line from a snippet of a 1977 Icelandic film projected on the walls. (Iceland’s first feature-length film, in fact, in which both Kjartansson’s parents appear as actors; a catalog essay suggests that the artist was conceived on set.) Featuring living-room vignettes strewn with empty beer bottles, “Take Me Here by the Dishwasher” would’ve been a fantastic fit for the Hirshhorn lobby, but alas, it already appeared at the New Museum in New York. “Woman in E” debuted earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Ragnar Kjartansson standing by “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only he who knows longing),” (2015). Credit: Matt Dunn

Thanks to his quick rise, Kjartansson has more marquee shows than works. The Hirshhorn doesn’t do him many favors with a conservative installation. “Scandinavian Pain” (2006–12), a sculpture of those words in pink neon, ought to be hanging outside in a place of pride over the front of the museum, as it did for shows in London and Norway, not tucked over the escalators. “The End—Venezia” (2009), the work that made the Kjartansson’s career, comprises 144 oil portraits of performance artist Páll Haukur Björnsson, who sat for those portraits over the course of the 53rd Venice Biennale. These paintings aren’t nearly cramped enough at the Hirshhorn to give the viewer the sense of obsessive compulsion. Kjartansson’s free-standing, theater-backdrop paintings of snowy boulders, “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only he who knows longing)” (2015), would look sublime in the museum courtyard.  

Still, all of Kjartansson’s qualities are plainly legible in the Hirshhorn’s presentation. He walks a fine line between sincerity and sarcasm, which comes through in pieces such as “Scandinavian Pain” or in “God” (2007), a video in which the artist appears tuxedoed in front of an 11-piece band, crooning the line, “Sorrow conquers happiness.” There is a degree of transgression in Kjartansson’s focus on family and marriage, deep but unmistakable behind his crystal-cool, casual approach to these subjects; a flash of rage underneath the frozen surface. His subtle formal touches are evident, too, in the way he always shows exactly what’s up his sleeves, relying on film purely for documentation purposes. The way Kjartansson uses performance to create video loops is especially transparent.

Preciousness is another hallmark of Kjartansson’s work. It’s not just the final video or the enchanting song that makes “The Visitors,” it’s also the single take, the singers’ warbly voices, the way each performer abandons his or her post and leaves the Rokeby Farm estate, a single camera following them into the field. It’s easy on the ears and eyes, and maybe too saccharine for its own good. Given another decade, and some time in the studio rather than time on tour, Kjartansson may not count this as one of his signature works at all.

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Jan. 8. 700 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 633-4674. hirshhorn.si.edu.