For His Next Marathon Performance, Ragnar Kjartansson Asks Organists to Play an Italian Pop Song 3,000 Times

The project is the Icelandic artist's first commission for a public collection in the UK.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors Artes Mundi 6.

Ragnar Kjartansson is on the hunt for organists with singing chops—and a lot of endurance.

The Icelandic artist is developing an epic, five-week musical performance for the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. He conceived the piece—his first commission for a public collection in the UK—especially for a historic organ housed at the museum. The Sky in a Room is due to kick off in February. But first, the Icelandic artist must find a cast of 10 organists who can sing—in Italian.

Italian is required because the organists will be performing Il Cielo in una Stanza (The Sky in the Room), an Italian pop song the artist describes as “almost the Italian national anthem of love.” Martin Scorsese featured the romantic hit from the 1960s in the film Goodfellas and France’s former First Lady, Carla Bruni, has also sung the pop classic. The performers are expected to play the song more than 3,000 times over the course of the performance’s five-week run (February 3–March 11).

“We have a call out” for organists with good voices and lots of stamina, says Karen MacKinnon, the director of the Cardiff-based art foundation Artes Mundi, which has co-commissioned the work with the national museum. “It’s quite a lot to ask.” The work is the first performance ever acquired by the Wales institution. 

The artist has developed the performance specifically for the National Museum of Wales’s gallery of British art, which is also home to a historic organ originally owned by a Welsh aristocrat. The room will be temporarily cleared of paintings to make way for Kjartansson’s work. (Because it is so site-specific, the performance will not tour.)

Sir Watkin Williams Wynn’s organ is typically played once a month by volunteers. But MacKinnon is confident that the instrument will rise to the challenge of a constant performance. 

Kjartansson is known for asking musicians to perform feats of endurance; his performers had plenty of refreshments during the artist’s most recent exhibition in the UK, at London’s Barbican Centre in 2016. The fridge was always well-stocked with bottles of beer. Will the singing organists in Cardiff have access to the same refreshments? “I think they might be sober, but you never know with Ragnar,” MacKinnon says.

The idea for The Sky in the Room first came to Kjartansson when MacKinnon showed him around the National Museum of Wales more than three years ago. She recalls seeing the artist’s eyes light up when he spotted the organ in the gallery surrounded by blue fabric-colored walls and 18th-century British paintings.

Artes Mundi organizes an international prize and biennial exhibition, which is funded by Arts Council Wales and Cardiff City Council, among others. MacKinnon stresses that the organization’s work extends well beyond the prize; it also seeks to place works by leading international artists in Welsh public collections.

In 2015, after Kjartansson showed The Visitors (2012) in the Artes Mundi 6 exhibition, he won the £30,000 Derek Williams Trust purchase award. The prize, which enables the National Museum of Wales to purchase works by Artes Mundi shortlisted artists, partly funded The Sky in the Room commission, which is also supported by the Art Fund, a UK-wide charity.

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