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The Guardian Says a Piece Currently on View at the DMA Is the 21st Century’s Best Art. But Is It?

Is Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors really the best? Probably not. But you can go see—and hear—for yourself.
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Ragnar Kjartansson, Th Visitors. Photo by Elisabet Davids. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine New York, and i8 Gallery Reykjavik.

Yesterday, U.K. newspaper The Guardian named Ragnar Kjartansson’s 2012 video installation The Visitors as No. 1 on its Best Art of the 21st Century list, beating out pieces by Ai Weiwei, Gerhard Richter, Nasher Prize Laureate Doris Salcedo, and others. 

Coincidentally, the video is currently on view (for free) at the Dallas Museum of Art, accompanied by a series of 415 postcards made by the artist over a yearlong period. So, of course, I had to go check out the greatest artwork of our century as soon as the news broke. 

The Icelandic artist’s acclaimed piece is 64 minutes of a song on loop, played by Kjartansson and eight friends, including members of the bands Múm and Sigur Ros. Each person is recorded in a separate room of a dilapidated mansion in Upstate New York, connected only by being able to hear one another through headphones. One man plays guitar, perched on a bed where a naked woman sleeps. Another plays the piano in a gilded library. One woman plays the cello at the top of a grand staircase. Kjartansson appears twice–playing the drums in the kitchen and singing in the bath. 

The Visitors takes its name from ABBA’s final album. Its lyrics are from the poem Feminine Ways, which was written by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife. The artist created the poignant and melancholic work in the aftermath of their divorce. 

The main message: “There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing you can do.” 

It’s heavy, yes, but it’s also strangely soothing; a broken lullaby playing in pieces across nine giant screens in a dark passageway. The Guardian claims that most viewers are compelled to stay for the entire duration of the video, “moved to tears of euphoria and sorrow.” I don’t know about that. 

However, at the DMA, there were a surprising number of onlookers huddled in the hallway where The Visitors was playing, lingering in front of one screen, then the next, perhaps being moved by the emotional ballad. 

Is it the No. 1 best piece of art created in the 21st century? That’s a funny question, and, unlike The Guardian, I don’t feel qualified to answer. It’s interesting, though, and you should stop by the DMA for a watch and a listen. It’s on view in the Hoffman Galleries through March 22, 2020. 

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