National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

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Resonance of a Missing Room

Essay by Niklas Lundell and Louise Höjer

Memories, expectations, and anxieties blur. The spaces that surround me shift accordingly. Or is it the other way round. I wake up in the wrong room with the wrong person. I have a shower. Look at myself in the mirror. I think about how I wished the night had gone. For a few moments I think about the what ifs. I make myself a cup of coffee that I do not drink. I hear the breathing of the other person who shouldn’t be there. I feel the pressing absence of the presence that should have been here instead. I leave the house contemplating the shortest short story written by Hemingway “For sale; baby shoes, never worn.”

I sit on the toilet, run through a couple of pages of Bukowski. For a moment I think about my currently faltering sexuality, look at the mirror’s hung-over red-tinted revenge, go out and open a beer. Someone plucks away at their guitar, the neighbour is rearranging furniture, jumping up and down or whatever else in the room upstairs. Three rooms and Bukowsi’s narrative world. Can I choose which one I am in and how I experience them, respectively or through which premises’ In the bathroom there is a shower, toilet and a basin, I shit and look in the mirror; in the kitchen with its furniture and stove I write and hear someone playing guitar and also hear the room upstairs unknowing what’s there or what it looks like, but I create an image and a narrative plot from the sounds.

Without expectations I arrive at the National Museum in Stockholm to a small group of people that have apparently been waiting for me. Together we make our way up in the awkward non-space of the elevator. Once upstairs an elegant, elderly gentleman of few words greets us. In silence we follow him through one floor of the National Museum. Doors are opened, people pass by, people look at the art, they observe the artefacts. Due to the circumstances - I am here for a performance by the artist duo Lundahl & Seitl; Symphony of a Missing Room - I begin to suspect and believe that everyone is playing a role, that everyone is here for me. My awareness is highly sensitive to every possible action that might be, that is, significant.

We are told to wait on two benches opposite each other on the main staircase. We are once again left alone without our guide. We do not speak, so full are we of anticipation. The situation between me and the others in the group has become strained in its silence. I am waiting. The last five minutes have been an exercise in the ceremony of waiting, the construction of anticipation; my whole body is full of expectation. My body is sensitized to this ritualistic preparation for a “meaningful experience” - the silence, the walking together at a pace slower than normal, being together but without exchange. Waiting for instruction. Thankfully we are given headphones. A slightly ethereal, otherworldly female voice takes over the guidance.

One of the women in the group stands up and walks down the stairs. The voice tells me to follow. Who is this woman’ I grow suspicious. I begin to doubt all the others in my group. Maybe they are all part of the game. Maybe they all know something I don’t. For a moment I hesitate. I feel unprepared and unwilling to follow the gentle commands ringing in my ears. I should be allowed to make my own decisions, not follow blindly, not simply to do as I am told. Paranoia strikes, they are all in on it. But as the rest of the group follow one by one, I grow curious as to what is next. Group pressure’ I don’t want to be the one who doesn’t take part. I take confidence in the fact that this is an artwork - it is only pretend, only an hour of my time. Reluctantly I do as I am told.

I am led down the stairs, told to follow, to notice, to stop, to close my eyes. I am blindfolded. Someone takes my hand, or I take theirs. “Crouch, walk through the passageway, a tunnel” I hear my steps echoing against the sides of the tunnel or cave, I feel my head touch its roof. I can feel myself entering another space. I cannot see, I only hear and feel. The exceptionally well designed three dimensional sound system in our headphones gives an exact idea of the surroundings; sounds from a tunnel, a forest, a large empty hall for example.

We are no longer a part of a group, we cannot see, hear or touch each other. I am in the hands of these caretakers being guided through an audible space. Neither the voice nor hands belong to an identifiable person. But I trust them; an emotionally strong bond has developed. Do I succumb to this touch and my longing for it more easily because I no longer see, no longer know from where it comes’ I am no longer in control. I have let my doubt go. I have entered their space. I left myself at the threshold of their world. I let myself be carried away by sound, touch and smell. I am immersed now. Resistance is still a possibility but no longer desirable. I want to give myself up.

I am no longer a subject, but rather I am subject to feeling, memory, expectation, anticipation. What now constitutes my existence is bound up in the sensations that are being presented to me. ‘I’ am not here. What is here is a synthesis of sensations, no more, no less. Momentary insanity. It offers me escape. On later reflection I come to think of Descartes Meditations and the notion of the subject; I think therefore I am. But at the point I enter Symphony of a Missing Room, it is more like I think not therefore I am not. The work does not appeal to my intellect. It demands and uses my intellect but it is foremost a sensual and emotional seduction.

The artists have taken advantage of me. They use the well-rehearsed practice of ceremony to bring me to this place of self-abandonment. Since I was a child I have practiced a certain type of behaviour before ‘significant moments’ be they religious, educational, or national celebrations. They usually occur in a specified time - the accumulation of people, a proceeding together to the place of event and silent anticipation. This behaviour is socially instinctive, not in the least intellectual. It is embodied. I await to be carried away with the moment - a moment of signification that washes over me, temporarily erases me where I become part of what is happening. In this moment I leave rationality and sanity aside. I am irrational. I am vulnerable, sensitive, and a believer.

A faceless female storyteller leads me into a fictional world. I am (removed: ‘literally yet’) gently taken by the hand as I explore what I am told is a secret room in the museum. The hands that guide me are almost floating. Sometimes they come from above, sometimes from below. It is an enormous hall that has been left untouched for years, maybe even hundreds of years. I am led to the very edges of this room. My hand is placed on its walls and so I confirm its existence to myself. I am led into a magical forest inhabited by an old man. My blindfolds are removed. The worlds converge. I am still in the National Museum, yet the old man appears at my feet dressed in an amber silk gown. The tree I was touching has become a pillar. I am moved but deeply disappointed at this reappearance of reality.

Of course a psychoanalytic analysis of fairytales might go some way to explaining the deep effect of the female guide, the old man, the touch, the magical forest and tower. Yet even more worrisome than a search for the impossible fulfillment of my desires is my obvious willingness to take part in the construction and affirmation of an imaginary world. For an hour I inhabit the world that Lundahl&Seit have constructed. I construct it with them, it only it exists because I willingly confirm it. I let the soothing voice and gentle hands seduce me. I can vaguely hear the sounds of the outside world - the ‘real’ world - beyond my headphones, but choose to ignore it. I choose to play along in a space beside myself. In a momentary escape where I am no longer an adult. In a place where I make myself believe that I am not responsible or accountable. And that is why it hurts to open my eyes. At that moment I realise that I want and need to believe in a world where something else is possible, I still believe in stories. And if I can make myself believe in this one, how many more can I delude myself with on a daily basis’

I return to the question, why did I let myself into to this’ Or rather, why did I let Lundhal & Seitl into my imaginary space’ Because isn’t this space actually mine - the timeless place where I used to hide as a child’ This imaginary, magical place where I feel safe, where the outside world can no longer touch me’ I realise that it is so accessible because it is not simply my own. I made it my own through the fairytales I was told as a child. The same stories that many were told as children from the Grimms brothers and H C Anderson among others. My personal imagination is so similar to everyone else’s. Our belief systems are one and the same. What I thought was my secret private space is more or less like everyone else’s made up of forests and castles and secret rooms. You hid in the same corners as me, I just didn’t see you there.

The work appeals to us as individuals but reaches us through a socially shared imagination. Through a narrative structure that is the foundation of our culture but also forms our individual conscience. Blinded, we reaffirm the architectonics of an all too familiar narrative. The source of our belief and faith lies in this repetition - like a mantra. The acoustic echo of our shared imagination affirming itself.

The space we are drawn into exists for a limited time. And here, I just don’t mean a moment of opportunity, but literally this place that I hear, touch and feel exists. But it exists only for a limited time. A time, paradoxically provided by the institution of the museum - a social space allocated to provide leisure time. It is a politically sanctioned anomaly that offers refuge from reality where bizarrely the normal laws of space and time no longer apply and are up for negotiation. It is a controlled environment where fantasy is allowed to roam more or less free. It is somehow a loophole in the system - a loophole of reality where anything could be possible. It is much like the cinema or theatre, apart from the fact that it is more powerful as we are more active here. We are no longer a docile audience as Lundahl & Seitl’s work demonstrates. In the museum we are individuals, free agents. ‘I’ am addressed.

I walk, I touch, I hear, I feel. It is stronger than the two-dimensional frame of the cinema or theatre. It is not that the third wall has been broken. It was never there. In the museum I manifest the social imaginary. I feel as though I am in control and not as though I am being presented with something. I am not sitting in the dark, as if a chained slave in Plato’s cave where shadows perform for me. But here I am ‘out and about’ and ‘I’ am performing. Of course Lundahl & Seitl play on the disposition of theatre and cinema, perhaps because they come from dance and performance backgrounds rather than visual art. They put me in the dark. They submit me to their soundtrack. But, importantly I can still walk out. I don’t of course. I am a sucker for entertainment. I want them to take me away. And they do, but only on the premise that I perform. On the premise that I am the subject I claim to be. The individual that the museum addresses me as.

Already at the beginning of the nineteenth century the museum came to replace the church as the quintessential public sphere, where one not only went to see and be seen, but also where adults went to perform themselves as cultured citizens. It became, and to a large extent still is, the realm where people are educated, re-educated or enact their good education. Slowly the images of Christ’s sacrifices, trials and temptations came to be replaced by more profane images, closer to the everyday lives of the citizenry. Paintings and artefacts were chosen to celebrate the nation rather than religion. Today these have largely been replaced by art that reflects the individual and the individual’s imagination or that can be interpreted as such. To this degree, it is an institution that has moved with the times, seeking to reflect and celebrate the cultural values of its visitors. But make no mistake; they of course also educate their visitors as to what these values should be, especially in the case of national museums - providing a public space and decorating it as appropriate to public decency.

To some degree it is a question of decorum, the architecture, frills included, produce a certain type of behaviour - one suitable to the context. What types of actions are suitable to the particular space, time and social narrative’ Lundahl & Seitl produce a new social narrative creating radically new rooms within this traditional institution. Space is rearranged and time is marginal. They take me out of time, my watch and cell phone are out of reach and useless as I am taken on immediate and short-lived journeys between rooms and milieus. Time is not given as a reference apart from a few warnings such as ‘soon’ or ‘later’ but for the most part it all happens ‘now’; take three steps forward, stop, turn around. In this respect the work shows needs not heed the history the museum attempts to present. Times - fictional, imaginary and real are conflated.

An hour could have passed, maybe two. An autumn. A winter. A passage through three scenes of a private drama in a public space where we are both the performers and audience. A man lies on the floor, announced as a guard. He sleeps, or at least he has his eyes closed, and we are told he is dreaming. ‘In his mind he thinks about the leaves falling from the tree that rustle in the wind just like those outside through the window.’ I look up through the window and see the autumn leaves of the tree outside. The man is old and tired. The leaves fall, die. Time passes. We are led to the adjacent room and soon we too lie on the floor, eyes closed, hypnotised, led into thoughts and dreams about things we have just experienced in this room - ancient busts and marble sculptures. Realities blur. Time is suspended, as is belief and doubt.

Lundahl & Seitl do not steal my time. I give it to them. I feel safe in their hands and in their well-constructed artifice that allows me to be myself. There is room for me in the space and time they provide. I am invested in them as they are in me. Power relations are there. How could they not be’ But they are constantly under negotiation. I could opt out, but I don’t. The work exceeds my expectations, but also disappoints me. It stops short. But this disappointment is healthy, respectful, necessary. We spent time together, created a space together. Now, each to their own. Playtime over’But I am left feeling frail and vulnerable.

I let them in, I didn’t necessarily want to, but I didn’t say no, in fact I followed them, I was seduced into their world which meant that I was letting Lundahl & Seitl into mine, there is a confused feeling of comfort and being ill at ease by this meeting. A real meeting where worlds collided - not collapsed that would be too much to ask of an artwork, too much to want from an artwork. Reduced to a child, allowing myself to enter that secret imagination of my childhood - what was it I wanted, what did I desire, why did I go there’ I now realise that I wanted to be left there forever or to have it smashed into pieces.

Afterall, isn’t this what we ask of art, that it somehow makes up for our sins, shows us our shortcomings, displays the horror of the world, hangs it on the wall, takes it away from us so we can contemplate it at a distance. Lets not pretend to be more sophisticated than we are, its like religion. It’s like a drug. We go there on sundays, en masse. We go there looking for understanding and guidance as an escape from our hangovers, Monday mornings and to round the straight edges of our corners. There we proceed in silence. We await the cathartic moment.

Art. An urban religion. Or’ It’s the same thing every week, knees shaking, unstable from work and decadence; daily life and its extravagant escape. We wake up as clocks chime for mass and feel the strong need for a room accepting of dreams and fuelled with impressions. The art gallery is contemporary Western society’s place of escape, just as the church was when people still lived in the forest and wore amber coloured silk garbs. We are tourists of the arts, just as any other pilgrim voyage. The blue period room in Barcelona or the double projections of meta-narrative films in Venice, we’re there. Give us peace. There are foldable chairs for the physically disabled and headphones with guidance for the intellectually crippled. We consume. Proof of your interest, dedication and attendance can be bought in the shop to decorate your agnostic suburban living room back home. A crucifix on a gold chain or a coffee-table version of the bible is available - slightly altered.

But even the gallery space is put to question. A new architectonic wind is blowing and the cube’s white walls is not the curators new black. The room should live its own life, move with and through the art. We who create these rooms, at the encouragement of Lundahl & Seitl, rock the weighted pillars of the traditional institution. Within the stately rooms of the National Gallery we stumble along goggle-eyed, hearing impaired, lying on the floor, hugging pillars, evading imaginary obstacles. We inhabit rooms that are cold and windy, where there are forests, towers, birds that cast no shadows, sleeping guards in wizards clothes, where pillars are trees. We look into a mirror and enter the secret room of the museum. We make it our own, not simply this room, but the very museum which becomes a place where we can behave differently than normal where we play like children. And by our misbehaviour the museum itself is changed, made different. For some of us the institution now has a missing magical room. The price we pay is believing in an imaginary and parallel universe.

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