Lundahl & Seitl

Most accounts of Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl’s Symphony of a Missing Room, 2009, cast it as magic realism: a mélange of fairy-tale hallucination and reality beyond doubt. At appointed hours an audience, limited to six, assembled and, once outfitted with special surround-sound headphones, heard a disembodied female voice directing them toward the museum’s Renaissance rooms, where they donned opaque goggles, which translated everything that they might have seen into nondescript shapes in light and dark. A furtive detour within the museum commenced; routine sight and hearing now supplanted, you followed the woman’s whispered instructions as someone’s hand softly holding yours offered gentle guidance. “Crouch and step from the room you are in,” the woman said, “into a tunnel toward the secret room”; your bowed head happened to graze the edge of the tunnel’s entrance just as the sonic effect of your footsteps changed, from making the floorboards creak, to echoing down a dank, gritty tunnel. Inside the missing room the light touch of the shepherding hand would suddenly seem to dissolve, leaving you feeling quite vulnerable, until another took its place, helping you maneuver and respond to assorted commands: “Take three steps forward, turn around.”

Over and over again, the touch of your escort’s hand gently departed as if you were in a serene dance, until another materialized, sometimes from behind or even above. Two sensations prevailed during this enigmatic experience; separated from the small group, you felt utterly alone, and constantly on a threshold physically, psychologically, emotionally, and temporally. There was no “before” or “soon,” only now. The woman’s voice offered hints about the room—“uninhabited for hundreds of years”—then invited you to touch its walls, triggering your own intimate imaginary world to emerge. Afterward you were led outside, where the light increased, birds sang, and your feet sounded in a “supernatural forest.” More stories—“an old man dwells here . . . ”—then, without warning, the goggles were lifted. There lay the old man’s apparently lifeless body—not in a forest, but in the museum—with nineteenth-century plaster sculptures about. But the astonishment you inevitably felt was not primarily because of the body, or the missing forest, but because of the other members of your group standing alongside; one second ago, you were unconditionally alone in a ceaseless netherworld.

Magic realism is not a scalpel sharp enough for this experience; Symphony evoked elaborate feelings about madness and what might follow immediately after death. A few lines from William Wordsworth’s 1807 poem “She Was a Phantom of Delight” came to me: “And now I see with eye serene / The very pulse of the machine; / A Being breathing thoughtful breath, / A traveller betwixt life and death.” Poised between insanity and the afterlife, Symphony is ever more intriguing when one considers the neuropsychiatric disorder known as Cotard’s syndrome, of which the symptoms are general feelings of unreality, bodilessness, nonexistence: a fit description of the work. Cotard’s syndrome patients may even declare they are dead, yet they can still think—a case of cogito without ergo sum? Not really. As evidence that they are dead, Cotard’s patients aver that they no longer feel anything. Interweaving Wordsworth’s sensations of the phantom with the madness of Cotard’s syndrome, one begins to grasp the experience of Symphony of a Missing Room.

Ronald Jones