This Musical Exhibit Has A Title Inspired By Abba And A Sentiment Inspired By Obama

A still from "The Visitors" (Courtesy of The Broad Museum)

There's an oddly shaped room at The Broad museum where, on any given day, you might find people sitting on the floor, listening to music. That's where the video installation, "The Visitors," is mounted. The piece was created in 2012 by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.

"It's really a piece where you can walk through and just see those [as] singing paintings, say 'okay' and walk out, or you can just linger into and be immersed in all of its seductive sentimentality," Kjartansson told us. The sentiment is one of longing for a different era — it's a love-song to an America that no longer quite exists politically.

"I would never have made this piece today. I was just so excited about America back then. It was like 2012 in the Obama time, and it felt like sort of liberal ideas were unstoppable and everybody was in it together. I was like a citizen in the American empire falling in love with America," said Kjartansson.

A still from "The Visitors" (Courtesy of The Broad Museum)

"The Visitors" was shot in a decrepit, bohemian mansion built in upstate New York. which itself is a relic of American history.

"I had been very much in love with this house, Rokeby house," Said Kjartansson. "It was built in 1815 by John Armstrong, a commander in the Washington army in the War of Independence. It's one of the last houses in upstate New York to be still owned by the same old grand 19th century family."

Deeming it a place of magic, Kjartansson wanted to fill every room with song.

So he asked eight of his musician friends from Reykjavik to join him. Each set up in a different part of the house. There is a The ninth video is of the front porch where a group of local townspeople sing and occasionally shoot off an old cannon.

When we recently spoke with Kjartansson about the making of his piece, he told us a bit about the shooting location's unique history.

"In the room where Christine and I are playing the accordion, there's a flute. John Armstrong would play that flute in the trenches during the war of independence. There's like the flute of freedom and the pack of Dorritos by it. I mean all the rooms that we are in are historic in their ways," said Kjartansson.

The videos of each musician were recorded at the exact same time. In one frame, Kjartabsson plays the acoustic guitar in a bathtub. Other frames depict accordions, baritone guitars, cellos, drums, and more.

"It was quite a kick recording it. I really remember that very fondly. How you could feel all the rooms around you being full of music. And then suddenly you hear a cannon outside," said Kjartansson.

Kjartansson named the piece after the last album by the legendary Swedish group, ABBA.

"I really love Abba. I had a problem with the title and then I just found it on top of this record collection on this album sleeve. And it almost looks like on the cover they're in some gloomy big mansion. There's a great song on that album which is like 'one of us is crying, one of us is lying.' That's some pretty hardcore Scandinavian pain for you," he said.

While the piece is in many ways a long way from home, it's placement in Los Angeles feels deeply appropriate.

"I'm delighted that it's being shown in the good old capital of show business. I love the movies, I love L.A., I'm really happy that it's there. When California is just fighting for its liberalism in this new state of America, I think it's good to have this memorial for good old American liberalism," said Kjartasson.

You can go see "The Visitors" at the Broad Museum in downtown LA.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's The Frame.


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