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Artes Mundi – The Sky in a Room

National Museum Cardiff
Saturday 3rd February 2018

Love it or hate it, Artes Mundi is the UK’s largest art prize. The work might not always inspire, move or delight, yet there is the odd piece which meets these standards.

In comes Mr Ragnar Kjartansson, Iceland’s most daring artist after Björk, whose practice utilises music and performance to create new spheres in the gallery space. Last seen in Penarth with The Visitors, he has now turned his attention to the rococo organ within the National Museum Cardiff. Built in 1774, the commission came from the Welsh patron of the arts Sir Watkins Williams Wynn for this chamber organ and it has resided in the museum for decades. Thankfully it has been restored and still works, with monthly concerts. Ragnar adores the gallery the organ is placed in and has made some striking decisions for his latest project.

Causing no doubt many a raised eyebrow, he asked for the entire gallery to be bereft of all paintings which adorn the space. The absence of hanging art is replaced with a dimly lit ambience, which makes you appreciate the duck egg coloured walls much more. His obsession with the Italian pop song ‘Il cielo in uni stanza’ (The Sky In A Room) by Gino Paoli from 1959, has lead to this most head-turning of projects. Nine musicians are to play this same song all day for weeks on end. One question remains…why?

The song itself was written by Paoli during a passionate encounter with a prostitute (inspiration comes from many places). His stunning verse helps depict this dreamlike vision:

When you are here with me
This room no longer has any walls
But trees,
Infinite trees.

When you are here near to me to me
This violet ceiling does not exist anymore.
I see the sky above us.

Who remain here
As if there was no longer anything,
Anything at all in the world.

A harmonica sounds.
To me it seems to be an organ
That vibrates for you and for me
Up in the immensities of the sky.
For you, for me:
In the sky.

As a pop song, it’s standard fare. Though it is this arrangement for organ which breathes new life into the poetry and the floating melodic structure within the song. The organ creates the sweet and heavenly scented sounds we expect from the king of instruments, with this miniature organ never failing in its music making. Within the song, we also hear moments of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and the scales that would usually predominate his compositions. This event might try and emulate that of marathon performances of Erik Satie’s Vexations, though there appears to be no acknowledgement of any repetitions. Who knows how many times this song will be played since one rendition seamlessly bleeds into the other.

Now for some real talk. As an artist myself who tied to pitch my own Vexations fundraiser on the organ a few years ago (the museum did give the city premiere of the work back in 2009), I have some reservations about this project. The museum informed me that the organ could not cope with durational performances and I was also fed a cock and bull story about insurance. I guess because I was not such a big name is what the real problem is here. The double standard is even more evident when I had in fact tried to become a part of The Sky in a Room, as a performer (if anyone knows about durational music in Cardiff, it’s me) and was slammed with an Equal Opportunities notice (though there appears to be no diversity within the choice of musicians). During the call out period, I had not enough time to learn the music. Had I known the execution would have been a grand as this I would have made much more effort. Let’s hope they need an understudy!

The larger question of what does it mean to purchase a performance also lingers (the museum have acquired the rights). This is the first performance the museum has obtained and there could be talks for days about what this really means. I would also like to call upon the museum to welcome artists in to create their own work inspired by The Sky in the Room. Responses are key and to help enrich the projects and its place within Cardiff.

I will, no doubt make several visits to The Sky in a Room. To frequent within its hallowed walls (or lack of) is something I’ve needed recently, a sort of therapy of its own kind.

Don’t miss one of Cardiff’s cultural events of the year.

Glorious & transgressive.

Rating: *****

The Sky in the Room continues at the National Museum Wales till 11th March 2018. Entry is free and all are welcome.

Arts Mundi 8 opens at National Museum Wales 26th October 2018 and runs till 24th February 2019.

Photo Credit: Hugh Glen dinning

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