Distancing #56: The Visitors


I learned about coronavirus in late January, the week before I flew to Los Angeles to visit Lizzy and cover an award show I didn’t end up attending. Before I left, Maria and I discussed the merits of wearing a mask on the flight, but by the time I decided I wanted one, the Williamsburg Duane Reade was sold out. So was the mom-and-pop place near my apartment. Almost two months before the president declared a national emergency, and already no masks. As a result, the trip to LA had an eerie, last-hurrah quality, like everything else I did between January and March.

“Can you believe it’s been a year and a half since we’ve seen each other?” I asked Lizzy as we drove from Malibu to Santa Monica. 

Really?” I watched her do the math in her head. “A lot’s happened since then.”

I’d last visited the July after I turned twenty-three. I had been in town to research the beginnings of my novel, but also to flirt with the possibility of relocating to the west coast. That summer, I was still living at home in the New York suburbs, commuting into Manhattan a few days a week for a desk job, the way I had in college. Not much had changed for me since graduation, while Lizzy had an entirely new life in Los Angeles: a new boyfriend, a new apartment, a new career. I had been happy for her, but also envied the way her adult life had begun to take shape. She was at work when my plane landed, so I dropped my suitcase at her Koreatown apartment and went to the Brassaï show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, then went across the street to the Broad to see the Kusama infinity room because everyone on Instagram told me I should. Waiting in line, I heard a folk song travel through the lobby, and after my fifteen allotted seconds for an infinity-mirror selfie I followed the sound to a pair of black curtains and a silver placard describing Ragnar Kjartansson’s 2012 installation The Visitors.

On the other side of the curtains, I found nine screens in a darkened space, each projecting the image of a musician in a different room of the Rokeby house, a crumbling, bohemian mansion that once belonged to the Astor family. (Now it functions as an art collective for descendants and their friends.) These musicians play separately, but together: they can hear each other through their headphones, but they can’t see or touch each other. They’re forced to look inward for performance cues. Kjartansson plays guitar in a bathtub; in other rooms, Icelandic indie musicians like Kristín Anna, Gyða Valtýsdóttir, and former Sigur Rós member Kjartan Sveinsson play accordion, cello, and piano, respectively. Throughout the hourlong recording, they mostly repeat the same lyrics: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways” and “There are stars exploding around you, and there is nothing you can do.”

I’ve thought about The Visitors so many times over the past 195 days. Its version of bourgeois isolation feels prescient, given the popularity this year of a kindred aesthetic—cottagecore, quilting retrospectives, nap and prairie dresses. Then there’s the seemingly endless repetition of the same lyrics, and the nine-screen arrangement’s resemblance to a life-size Zoom call. At the Broad in 2018, the piece felt charged with existential dread, but nonetheless breathtaking in its ability to create an entire universe out of a domestic space. Today, listening to it as background music while I scrub my groceries in the kitchen sink… it hits different. There are stars exploding around you, and there is nothing you can do,the musicians sing, while the president admits on tape to downplaying the threat of the virus. It seems almost too on-the-nose.  

I now see The Visitors as a paradox: while the piece was created by sequestered musicians, it requires a communal viewing experience. With most museums still closed, video and performance art installations feel like experiences from a different time. Engaging with it on YouTube isn’t the same: the murmurs of other museumgoers have a ghostly effect, making me wonder when I’ll next hear so many strangers speaking at once, now that I’ve become so paranoid about aerosols. 

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four,” said John Cage. “If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Monotony self-contains; it develops its own rules and rhythms and rituals. I’ve lost count of the video calls with my writers’ group, the drives past farmland to collect my grandmother from her condo. I had planned to spend this summer building a life in Brooklyn, but instead I retreated home and reconnected with old friends. Dr. Fauci says life will likely return to its pre-COVID form in mid-to-late 2021, roughly the same interval between my trips to Los Angeles. Eighteen months, both a blink and a stretch.

Like all grief, mourning normalcy happened in stages: March was denial, April and May vacillated between anger and gratitude for my remote work, June was acceptance and then bargaining, July was malaise, and in August, finally, came true acceptance that the next several months will be an endurance exercise. Perhaps I’m drawn to The Visitors because it proves that what we do matters to other people, even if we can’t see them. That our actions chip away at a bigger project, that sincerity has value. In a deeply cynical world, it’s an exercise in optimism.

In the last few minutes of The Visitors, the musicians remove their headphones and gather around the pianist in the living room, lighting cigars and passing around a bottle of champagne. Once again, I fall into my feminine ways, they sing, reunited. They migrate outside, onto the estate, continuing the song until we can barely hear them. If everything must come to an end, it’s a gesture of hope that once we reach the finish line of this existential marathon we won’t forget its lessons, that we’ll carry its best rituals into the next normal. 

— Kate Dwyer
Long Island, day 195

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