Full Circle

Andrew Pasquier on Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Sky in a Room

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Sky in a Room, 2018–2020 Performance view, the Church of San Carlo al Lazzaretto, Milan, Italy, 2020. Photo: Marco De Scalzi.

IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, San Carlo al Lazzaretto was built as a field altar that permitted plague victims to eat of the body and drink of the blood in open air. Two Fridays ago, the church was hemmed in not by the sick, but by loud bargoers unaware of a different form of communion taking place inside. It was the twenty-fifth day of Ragnar Kjartansson’s durational performance The Sky in a Room and the beginning of the end of a summer lull in Milan’s coronavirus cases. A human-sized condom cutout flanked a mobile STD clinic in the church plaza, its cartoonish smile suggesting: We’re all fucked. Winter is coming. Go back inside again, it’s time for round two of your lonely quarantine.

Inside the small octagonal chapel, Kjartansson selected seven soloists to repeat the same Italian love song six hours a day, every day from September 22 to October 25, as an antidote to this Covid-imposed fate. Appropriately, the midcentury hit by Gino Paoli, “Il cielo in una stanza” (The Sky in a Room), describes someone so inspired by the altering power of love that their sad chamber melts away: “When you are here with me / This room has no walls anymore / but trees, infinite trees…”  For Kjartannson, the song, which found its widest audience in Mina’s 1960 rendition, is “about this kind of transformation that can happen in isolation.” In other words, a positive spin on a year of delirious confinements. 

The endurance work, first commissioned in 2018 for the National Museum of Wales, oozes unapologetic symbolism in its current iteration, curated by Massimiliano Gioni for the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi. The church originally stood at the center of the Lazzaretto, a large cloistered area outside city walls that once housed Milan’s banished Great Plague victims and which was forever immortalized in Alessandro Manzoni’s classic 1826 novel The Betrothed before its nineteenth-century dismantling. And the song, a well-known hit among older Italians, now serves as a sort of requiem for the elderly today, “who have been dying alone in their little, confined rooms,” as Kjartansson puts it. Yet despite such loaded curatorial intent, when I ask a few of the performers via email what they think about when they are singing, they tell me: “nothing.”

It was only around my fortieth time hearing The Sky in a Room that I started to understand what they meant. The Icelandic artist’s ethereal arrangement goes round and round incessantly, but it takes infinite forms. On my first encounter, sunlight streamed down from the newly restored dome. A soprano sat upright, playing the organ with hymnlike consistency, her voice operatic with measured vibrato. A few days later, after dusk, a tenor performed cascading, besotted renditions that sounded more informed by Paoli’s debauched, divine songwriting inspiration: a passionate one-night-affair with a prostitute. In the darkened church, the illuminated organ console cast a halo around the singer, Francesco Leineri. His silhouette seemed to slouch into every plaintive verse, his feet hovering over the pedalboard in anticipation of each chord’s resolution. Later, he described the sonic ritual to me not as a “three-minute song on a loop, but rather a whole symphony, which lasts a month and harbors within itself a variety of movements: joyful, painful, moving, boring, angered.”

Kjartansson was drawn to “Il cielo in una stanza” because it is “about the fundamental element of visual art: the transformation of space.” His point is conceptual, sure, but a couple of weeks ago, as I sat alone on a pew in a dark church, the performance felt practical, too. How do we transform confinement into something beautiful, and how does beauty figure into our survival? One of the singers wrote to me later, “I think that just letting oneself go without any thought or intellectual infrastructure may be one of the principal aims of this artwork which brings together indissolubly the performer and the viewer, joining them in a prayer.”

Rather than an “unusual monument” or “contemporary memorial” to the collective trauma of this year—as the press release suggests—The Sky in a Room can be understood as an ongoing ritual amid an ongoing tragedy. We are told that singing in a confined space is a dangerous practice during Covid-19, but it also can be healing. Like Kjartansson’s past hits, such as The Visitors (2012) or A Lot of Sorrow (2013–2014), its power, like that of prayer, derives from the intentionality of its repetition. You repeat a prayer over and over again in the hope that it proves true. You repeat a prayer even if you doubt it.