The room is actually in the basement of the Iceland Academy of Arts in Reykjavik. It is a small, intimate seminar space, where a winter symposium of the NSU’s artistic-research study circle is going on. As a recording studio the space is nothing special, since it has fluorescent lights and mechanical air-conditioning. The lights buzz so badly that they have to be switched off. The air-conditioning cannot be turned off, so it will have to represent the hum of the wind or the murmur of blood circulation.
The participants sit at the back of the room on chairs arranged into a semicircle. They are artists and researchers from different disciplines, some of whom are working on their doctoral theses, while others are simply interested in artistic research. This last aspect is important: in this community artistic research comes across as one way of making art. Also important for the success of my own work is the fact that among them are numerous representatives of the performing arts – they are used to all sorts of ‘lab work’ or playing together.
The microphone is positioned in front of the participants in the light of a small table lamp. Leaning against its stand is a postcard, the same one that lay on my kitchen table at the start of this essay. Before beginning the recordings, I show the people some other paintings by Hammershøi and tell them who the woman who appears in the pictures is. I say that the woman’s identity does not matter, in any case, and everyone can think of who they want. My only hope is that the consolers will use their own mother tongue or some other language that they know well, not just English. I also ask them to repeat their lines a couple of times, so that I can adjust the sound level, if necessary.
One at a time people get up and step in front of the microphone. I stand behind it with earphones on. I look each of them in the eye and give them the signal to start. There is something of the ritual, something almost religious, about the situation. The room’s underground location, the darkness and the buzzing make their own contribution.
Initially, we go in seating order. The first in the row hums. The second carries on with singing. I don’t understand the words of the song, but I am told that it is a love poem by the Icelander Rósa Guðmundsdóttir (1795–1855). The third whispers: “Are you okay? Are you okay, Elina?”
The next eight alternately whisper and sing. The songs are lullabies: the English-language Mocking Bird is followed by the Finnish Nuku, nuku nurmilintu (Sleep, sleep little bird), and even a song from Tuva, performed by a Danish woman who had spent time in Siberia. The whispers are in Icelandic, French, English and Danish. They offer assurances that Ida has no need to fear, that all is well. One reminds Ida that she loves her and urges her to take good care of herself. But what moves me most is the phrase: “You are so much more than this.” It not only consoles, but also challenges.
The twelfth consoler says nothing, but tries to touch Ida. In practice she strokes her own arm close to the microphone. The next one lets out the quiet shush from between her teeth that she normally uses to soothe her own child. Another, slightly older woman sitting beside the young mother says that time heals all wounds. Then, one critical participant has had enough and shouts: “Now it’s time to scream!” I ask her whether she would like to do this, but she declines. The next person in the row does not raise her voice either, but whispers quietly in Greek: “Speak to me, speak to me…” Finally, a Danish actor gets up from the row of seats and urges me to cover my ears. I turn the sound level down. The scream, nevertheless, is so badly ‘distorted’ that it is technically unusable. But psychologically the cry does its job. People burst out laughing, and from this point on there is space in the room for voices other than gentle ones.
The change is not immediately visible. Maternal words, stroking that avoids ruffling the fur, can still be heard: “I know, I know, it will be okay. It’s going to be okay…” and “I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry…” Then, one of the consolers gives a long monologue, in which we can sense a mild irritation. He speaks Norwegian, but I understand that he is trying to coax Ida to go for a walk. The man’s Danish companion in the next seat joins in and reminds us that the sun is shining outside.
There are three other Finns in the group, apart from me, the first of whom has already performed. Now, it is another one’s turn. “Hi there…” she says in Finnish, “Only you give yourself value.” The words are true, but for some reason to me they seem bland, embarrassing even. Of course, I don’t reveal my reaction, but say that we need some more short lines to counterbalance the lullabies. “Life isn’t fair…” the next in the row says, “We know that, but it doesn’t make it any easier.” The phrase is in no way any more original than the previous one, but it is easier to put up with it in English. And it is even easier when you don’t understand the language at all: for example, to my ears the Polish translation of the Russian Alexander Pushkin’s (1799–1837) poem sounds exotic, and has me admiring ‘Slavic sentimentality’. In contrast, my third compatriot’s adage: “You’ll be alright. The sun shines on a pile of twigs, too…” makes my cheeks burn red with shame.
We have now been round everyone once, but I ask whether anyone still wants to say anything. A few of those who performed earlier volunteer. Once again they try to tempt Ida to go for a walk and, in addition to Pushkin, there is also a quotation from the Dane Karen Blixen (1885–1962). People become keen to use new languages, too: a Norwegian starts speaking Hungarian, a Greek Portuguese, and an Irishman, who previously spoke English, Irish Gaelic.
Suddenly, one of the ones who, earlier on, addressed Ida in a maternal manner walks boldly up to the microphone and blurts out: “Seriously, he is a fucking idiot. You’ll get over it.” The whole room bursts out laughing. It is like a continuation of the laughter that had its beginnings in the scream, but, now, we howl with tears in our eyes, and the outburst feels like it will never end. A Danish philosopher observing the situation – the only one who did not want to share in the consolation – urges me to keep the laughter on the final soundtrack.
When the laughter has abated, the Icelander who sang Guðmundsdóttir’s love song at the start gives a speech to Ida. It is in Icelandic, but someone interprets it for me: “Dear Ida, all these people have tried to console you, and you just turn your back… You have to look at us!” I am already seeing in my mind how Ida turns towards the viewer of my video at this point, we may even see her in close-up.
A few people still want to try their luck. We get to hear more ‘Slavic sentimentality’ and Scandinavian sighs. The last consoler, nevertheless, refuses to sigh, and shouts lustily in Swedish: “Hello, hello, I’m home! Where are you?”
Before we go back out into the daylight, I, too, stand in front of the microphone and utter my own words of consolation: “It’s alright, everything’s fine, everything’s fine…” This is the mantra that I am in the habit of repeating to my daughter when she cries. For a moment, Ida’s name is actually Tilda.