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In Milan, a love song will become a requiem for plague times
The performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson at his studio, in a converted fishnet storehouse in Reykjavik, Iceland, Sept. 2, 2020. Kjartansson's latest work will see a rotating cast of performers sing and play the beloved postwar love ballad “Il Cielo in Una Stanza” for a month inside a church in Milan. Kristin Bogadottir/The New York Times.

by Blake Gopnik

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It’s a gorgeous August day in a Reykjavik park, and Ragnar Kjartansson is Zooming with me by phone. Aside from frozen fish, Kjartansson is one of Iceland’s most notable exports, feeding weirdly compelling performances to the global art world. Pointing his phone’s lens at a nearby Roman Catholic church, he shares an oddball biographical detail: Despite being raised Lutheran, he was an altar boy in that building, for the sake of the wages but also for the ritual, he explains.

There’s a point to his factoid. Our pandemic has brought him to church once again.

On Tuesday in an old Catholic space in Milan, Kjartansson plans to unveil a performance called “The Sky in a Room.” The title is taken from a popular tune, “Il Cielo in Una Stanza,” from postwar Italy — “it’s almost the national love song,” he said — and he has hired singers to repeat it hour after hour, day after day, for a month, accompanying themselves on the organ.

The song, written by Gino Paoli in 1960, is about a man so transformed by love that the walls around him seem to give way to a glimpse of the universe beyond. “It’s about this kind of transformation that can happen in isolation,” Kjartansson said. He feels that this speaks to our pandemic era: “It’s the song of people who are elderly, today, who have been dying alone in their little, confined rooms.”

The lockdown in northern Italy was one of the most stringent anywhere, and Kjartansson (his name is pronounced RAG-ner kuh-YART-un-sun) pointed out that the generation most at risk had an intimate connection to the pop song in his piece. In September, in Milan, the song’s repetitions will echo the routines of confinement, even as its live performance reveals a post-lockdown universe.

Kjartansson, 44, has built his reputation around similar endurance works, at once ridiculous and moving. For the 2013 Venice Biennale, he filled a boat with a brass band that played the same plangent notes for all six months of the show. The following year, New Yorkers fell in love with a piece of his called “A Lot of Sorrow,” in which the National, the rock group, repeated one sad-sack song for six hours straight: You had to decide if this absurd perseverance magnified or erased the tune’s emotions.

When “The Sky in a Room” was first commissioned for a museum in Cardiff, Wales, in 2018, it too seemed to be about turning legible music into elusive art: Kjartansson dreamed up the piece after spotting the museum’s rococo organ and imagining Paoli’s much later tune drifting from it. But with its performance in Milan, Kjartansson said, his piece will achieve a new gravitas.

Alessandra Bordiga, a Milanese singer now rehearsing the piece, has known the song since childhood; the pandemic renewed her connection to it. Last spring, when a COVID-stricken friend was locked in a hospital room, Bordiga decided to record a tune to send to him, and Paoli’s song about isolation and escape seemed the obvious choice. Her friend survived, and repeating that same song for Kjartansson now feels like “a kind of mantra — like a prayer,” she said.

This isn’t her city’s first disease crisis.

The church where Bordiga will be performing, called San Carlo al Lazzaretto, was built to fend off the plague as it struck northern Italy in the decades around 1600. The octagonal building began life surrounded by a vast corral — the lazzaretto — filled with thousands of quarantined victims. At first the church had no walls so that the ill could preserve social distance as they watched from all sides as Mass was said. Just about all Italians know the story of San Carlo, since it’s told in “The Betrothed,” a novel they read in high school the way Americans read “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In Milan, when Kjartansson’s piece marries an iconic Italian song with an iconic Italian place, it will have a special resonance.

At least that’s the hope of Massimiliano Gioni, who leads the curatorial team at the New Museum in New York and also organizes a yearly project or two for the Trussardi foundation in Milan, a city not far from his hometown. The foundation places art in underused spaces, explained Gioni, speaking by phone from a borrowed pandemic home in Connecticut.

Hunting for a site and an idea for the Trussardi’s post-lockdown show, he came across San Carlo, remembered it as the plague church from his high school novel, then thought of how perfectly it would suit Kjartansson’s piece. San Carlo could turn the performance into a sort of requiem for northern Italy’s latest plague, which Gioni shuddered at from afar. For more than 100 days, he got reports of a virus so rampant that his parents could not step foot from their apartment.

That same virus forced all planning for Kjartansson’s Milan performance to happen remotely. As a New York curator for an Italian foundation, Gioni didn’t find much new in that. Kjartansson, who conducts an international career from a converted fish shed in Iceland, feels much the same. The pair auditioned musicians by Zoom, then rehearsed them the same way, with the artist “joining” his performers in church via laptop.

“It’s really a luxurious time to be dealing with a plague, when we have all this technology to actually connect us,” he said.

Once Kjartansson’s project goes live, two singers will be on duty for six hours each day, taking turns doing one-hour shifts. A socially distanced audience should also be there, restricted to one person in each of 15 pews.

If at some point in the run a second coronavirus wave prevents even that, Gioni imagines the show going on anyway: Word of the ongoing piece could stand for the ever-present hope “that somebody’s making art somewhere, whether you can see it or not.”

Kjartansson recalls that priests will say Mass even in an empty church (he has helped them) so why should his work not persevere the same way? “I like this idea of something happening in a space,” he said, “and it just is there, and you know that it’s there, but you cannot see it.”

He recounted how a performance that almost no one saw kick-started his global career: For a month in the spring of 2005, he sat alone in an empty dance hall in far southern Iceland, endlessly strumming the blues; not witnessing his performance didn’t stop the art world from talking and caring about it. A resurgence of COVID-19 would bring his career full circle, adding heft to his latest unobserved gesture.

“Everything is amplified by our times now,” he said. “We are living in these super interesting times, so everything we do is turned up to 11.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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