The Sky in a Room is the performance that Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson is setting up these days in Milan, in the Church of San Carlo al Lazzaretto (aka San Carlino).
This is a public art project conceived and curated by Massimiliano Gioni for the Nicola Trussardi Foundation as a soothing and relieving moment in the difficult situation we are all living because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, for the first time in recent history, the people of the entire planet are having to deal with a radical questioning of their lifestyles, their relationships, their beliefs. The pandemic has harshly reminded us of how fallible, tiny and defenseless we are, also making it clear that the world will unlikely to go back to the way it was before the pandemic. ‘Lockdown,’ ‘containment,’ ‘closure’ are the key words of 2020, together with the warning mantra of the early days of the pandemic: ‘stay home.’
For many weeks, the precautionary measures adopted for the containment of the Coronavirus have restricted the action of millions of people to their home. If the most acute days of the pandemic led to the rediscovery of an often forgotten home dimension and its ordinary little pleasures, a growing feeling of bewilderment and claustrophobia started winning over a growing number of people, seeing a partial relief only with the gradual onset of the so-called Phase 2 of the pandemic. In this context, The Sky in a Room is offered as a soothing balm for that period of solitude and isolation.
Although potentially addressing everybody, the version of The Sky in a Room presented at San Carlino is mainly dedicated to Lombardy, the Italian region most affected by the Covid-19 outbreak. In this sense, the work fits well in a specific historical and cultural context, creating a close connection between past and present epidemics hitting Milan in the past as Covid-19 is doing today. In fact, San Carlino church, whose first building was commissioned by Carlo Borromeo to Pellegrino Tibaldi, stands in the middle of the lazaret from which it got its name, the hub of the plague epidemics of 1576 and 1630, which became famous in The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. By working on this connection with history, territory and heritage, the Fondazione Trussardi and Gioni have explained what it means to make public art at the time of the pandemic.
The performance of the Icelandic artist is simple and powerful at the same time: until 25 October, every day, professional singers are alternating by the Church organ, performing an arrangement of Il cielo in una stanza by Gino Paoli (1960), without a break for six hours. Time and repetition are Kjartansson’s stylistic marks, and in his works – inspired by theater and music, both cultured and popular – the chorus repeated in an obsessive way turns into litany, mantra, prayer. The ethereal looped performance thus generates a lullaby which is both melancholic and reassuring, leading the listener to gradually focus on the music and the lyrics which, as they progressively become more familiar, take on a whole new meaning in the condition we find ourselves living in.
The Sky in a Room is a work that has to necessarily be experienced. The spectator enters the church and his gaze is immediately drawn to the presbytery, where the organ is.
Since the song is performed nonstop, you enter medias res and it can be a little difficult at first to recognize the music and the words: you may feel confused. You sit down and start listening while looking around. The central part of the church emphasizes recollection; circularity is the dominating element in the whole work and the context only increases its scope. In the meantime, a few minutes have passed and you start feeling the loop. On the third or fourth round, you remember the lyrics, which by now are hammering your mind, whirling, hand in hand with the rhythm. You are like in a trance and you feel transported, lifted, relieved. It is precisely a sense of relief that one perceives – paradoxically reassuring, given the circumstances. And, as the song says, the ceiling no longer exists.
The cathartic strength of the performance lies in the perfect balance between staging, space (real and mental) and singing of the song, which allows to penetrate its deep meaning, i.e. the dematerializing action of love (also carnal: it could be seen as the vision of an orgasm) that overcomes all limitations and takes on a new meaning in the particular context. The disappearing environment in Gino Paoli’s words is what we have lived, in this period, as a constraint: the domestic space. In any case, it is precisely for this transfiguring power that Kjartansson chose Il cielo in una stanza in 2018 when he first conceived the performance in Cardiff (commissioned by Artes Mundi and the National Museum of Wales, with the support of the Derek Williams Trust and ArtFund), remaining entranced by the eighteenth-century organ preserved in the museum: “Il cielo in una stanza – says the artist – is the only song I know that reveals one of the fundamental characteristics of art: its ability to transform space.”
The transformed space is ultimately the main theme of both the Cielo in una stanza and The Sky in a Room, as well as the relationship between material and immaterial, between real life and space and the imaginative power of art, the fulcra of Kjartansson’s research and what he exactly finds in the song which, according to him, “in a certain sense, is a conceptual work. [...] a celebration of the power of the imagination – inflamed by love – to transform the world around us.” Paoli’s song, therefore, in addition to being a text on dematerialization is also a text on transfiguration: everything is transformed into something intangible and symbolic, rising to a higher level by contrast, from the artificial to the natural (walls/trees), the closed to the open (ceiling/sky), the popular to the mystical (harmonica/organ). It is the transfiguration of physical love into spiritual love. Kjartansson’s work itself undergoes a transfiguration in passing from the first performance in Cardiff (the disassembled and emptied museum room), into a site-specific work for the Milan church, making it something different than a mere work of sound art. Through this process of re-signification, The Sky in a Room becomes a dematerialized sculpture (a “musical sculpture”, as Gioni defines it) that becomes an ephemeral monument in an environment that has been the fulcrum of the most advanced collective artistic experiments for centuries: the church. Since this is exactly the place for collective rite versus the more or less solitary (or at least confined, private) home space, the church transforms Kjartansson’s performance into a completely new work, in which the sound material transforms the perception of space, aiming at opening to new and distant horizons in time and space. In this sense, we may say that The Sky in a Room is a Baroque work: it has an elliptical and spiraling movement, it makes everyone’s imagination work, it pushes people to confront other dimensions, mystical and spiritual, profane and ordinary, in each case potentially endless (“alberi infiniti” [“endless trees”, to quote Paoli’s song]), it persuades one to believe that limits no longer exist. And as in a baroque vault, where the ceiling is torn open to make the infinite theatrically enter the finite, while listening to the reinterpretation of Cielo in una stanza in San Carlino, one spontaneously looks up at the dome and finds, in its place, the sky.
Text by Matteo Piccioni
The Sky in a Room, 2018
Performer, organ and the song Il cielo in una stanza by Gino Paoli (1960)
Initially commissioned by Artes Mundi and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and acquired with the support of the Derek Williams Trust and Art Fund
In Milan, presented and produced by Fondazione Nicola Trussardi at Chiesa di San Carlo al Lazzaretto
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik
Photo: Marco De Scalzi