58. The Royal Dude
May 24th, 2024

Ragnar Kjartansson - The Visitors
(File under: friendship, art, music, the atlantic ocean)

In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, his transposition of the chicken and the egg problem goes, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Lately I’ve been thinking about my own version: Is all the art I love about friendship? Or am I just seeing friendship in all the art I love?

Case in point: Where is the Friend’s House?. Merrily We Roll Along. Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession. LCD Soundsystem’s ‘All My Friends’. Old Joy. Frances Ha. Elbow’s ‘Dear Friends’. It’s A Wonderful Life. Anything about the joy of friendship, the frustration of it, friendship thwarted by distance, or sustained through perseverance—this is the stuff that sticks to my ribs. Just recently I saw Made In England, a brilliant and long-overdue retrospective of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (whose The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is, among other things, a great friendship movie!), and while I love their films for all their spectacle, what really moved me was watching both men come alive talking about the love they have for their brilliant, talented friend.

When I moved to the US at the end of 2011, I left a country strewn with friends for one where I knew nobody. Predictably, art about friendship began to resonate louder than before. Over the course of 12 years on the west coast, I met my people and fell in love with them, but I missed the ones on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s not exactly a hardship to have a cache of co-conspirators wherever you call home—but returning to one group always required leaving the other, and the guilt I’d construct for myself was big enough to have its own postal district. For some reason I’d always end up listening to Bill Callahan in airports as I flew back and forth between countries, one line from 'Riding For The Feeling' always sounding double-underlined: “All this leaving is never-ending.”

After much stalling and indecision, I moved back to the UK last month. It was a logistical and emotional gauntlet, but shortly before I left I was able to revisit one of my all-time favourite pieces of art, which made the whole thing slightly easier.

Fittingly, it was a friend who first told me about Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors. At the time I knew nothing about the Icelandic artist, or his video installation that The Guardian called the 21st century’s greatest piece of visual art. “Worth seeing?” I asked my friend, to which they glared at me unblinkingly, and with all the italicised gravity of a monarch conferring a royal honour, simply said: “Dude.” It was 2017, and I had lived in California long enough to know that this was not a recommendation to be taken lightly.

Time your entrance to The Visitors right, and you should walk into a dark room peppered with a few nebulous shadows and nine screens. As the screens switch on one by one the shadows suddenly become people, then moths, flitting from the glow of one screen to another. Each one displays a room with a different musician: a drummer in a pantry, a banjo player in a study, a man in a bathtub playing an acoustic guitar. One screen just shows a dozen or so people sat outside on the veranda of an old house. After tuning their instruments and limbering up, they all begin to play the same song: a slow, sad, repetitive country ballad with vast swells and delicate recessions.

What soon becomes obvious is that all these musicians are playing together, occupying rooms in the same lavish but tumbledown mansion—separated by architecture but united by music. As the song winds down, they abandon their instruments and begin to reunite in one room, one screen, after playing in isolation for almost an hour. They spill out of the doors of the mansion together, joined by the crew on the veranda, and one camera pans across to watch them as they march into the Hudson Valley horizon, singing and laughing and hollering and drinking and whipping each other with towels. There’s a dog, too. Back at the house, somebody switches off all the cameras one by one leaving the gallery in darkness. Wait a few seconds, and it all starts again.

It’s this last shot that gets me every time, the one that makes me misty, the one that took on a new significance when I saw it before leaving the US. In my most idealised, overly sentimental fantasy, this is what I want friendship to feel like: a boisterous gang of people stumbling arm in arm toward the horizon, all of us with the same tune reverberating in our chests. It’s a connection that defies geography and architecture and distance and time, and what I realised on this most recent viewing that it doesn’t just happen at the end of it all, it’s already happening, has happened, will continue to happen, all of us (with a nod to Ram Dass) walking each other home—regardless of where home is.

Dept. of Enthusiasm is a charmingly sporadic email from me, Jez Burrows. You can read some past issues, or sign up below.