Soundings: A Contemporary Score
The Museum of Modern Art | August 10 – November 3, 2013
The String and the Mirror
Lisa Cooley Gallery | August 1 – August 28, 2013
Even though it has been three decades since the emergence of the term “sound art,” the genre is still in the process of gaining a sustained presence in the New York art world. Its incorporation into the programming and collections of major art museums has not been on the terms defined by sound art’s existing institutions, which often emphasize the unique materiality of sound. Rather it has entered the art world as a corollary to film and video or live performance. This is the point of entry for Soundings: A Contemporary Score, the Museum of Modern Art’s first major exhibition devoted to sound art. The 16 international contemporary artists cover a broad span of media and theoretical approaches towards working with sound. For curators Barbara London and Leora Morinis, the social dimension of listening draws these diverse artistic practices together. London and Morinis try to consciously resist the stereotyped sound art experience of darkened galleries left bare save for high-end speaker systems and comfortable seating. More broadly, the loose curatorial lens of the exhibition fits with MoMA’s larger institutional mandate to promote the museum as a social space.
Three pieces positioned in transitional spaces around the exhibition proper offered this “engaging” experience, requiring visitors to listen more actively. Along a busy museum corridor, Sergei Tcherepnin’s sound sculpture “Motor-Matter Bench” (2013),constructed of a wooden subway bench fit with low-frequency-emitting transducers, invites passersby to rest a moment. Here, the experience of listening becomes physical and embodied as, once seated, the listener begins to feel a subtle bass rumble, and soon both the bench and the listener’s body quake. For a moment, the visitor is transported to a subway platform where a train is approaching. While Tcherepnin’s piece, like much sound art, employs the abstract sculptural quality of sound, it adds a strong dose of theatricality, in the suggestion of a specific context and narrative. Both Tristan Perich and Florian Hecker present multi-channel sound pieces that require the listener to take a central role in determining the mix of the sound. Perich’s “Microtonal Wall”(2011)is comprised of hundreds of small speakers, each of which play a single unique tone. In general, the sounds increase in pitch as one moves from right to left, but the listener has agency to transform the quality of the sound she hears by moving her head across the wall in different directions. Here, the listener’s body becomes a knob on a mixer. Hecker’s three-speaker installation, “Affordance” (2013), works in a similar way. As motifs played through one speaker repeat in two others further downstairs, the listener becomes compelled to walk along the staircase in pursuit of sounds as they move around and across the space.
However, the social aspect of listening—claimed by the curators to be the focal point of the exhibition—was kept in check by many of the installations, which required concentration and contemplation. Susan Phillipsz’s spare “Study for Strings” (2012) uses as its sound source the viola and cello parts of a 1943 composition by Pavel Haas. Written while the composer was interned in Nazi Germany, these fragments of the larger piece play from a series of disembodied speakers placed directly on the wall (resembling an institutional PA system). While the dramatic potential of Philipsz’s installation was diminished by its extremely ordered presentation, it still casts an elegiac mood. Also in the tourist-heavy rush of MoMA, the installation offers a rare moment of solace and quiet contemplation. Jana Winderen’s “Ultrafield” (2013), a 16-channel sound installation, attempted to create a more cinematic environment, surrounding the listener with recordings of bats, fish, and insects shifted in frequency so they could be registered by human ears. Winderen’s piece embodies the stereotype of sound art—the aforementioned dark room with speakers. The artist even positioned the speakers and their corresponding sounds in the room according to their placement in the natural environment, with bats flying above and insects below. However, Winderen’s intention to model a precise sonic sculptural field failed, as the small space felt cluttered with sounds, making it difficult for the listener to determine the location and direction of specific sound sources.
Moreover, Winderen’s impulse might feel conservative at this moment in sound art. One of the most compelling aspects of sound, as either medium or object of analysis, is its ability to define what is both inside and outside the limitations of human perception. “Ultrafield” might have been more compelling if the sounds of the natural world remained inaudible. Upstairs in MoMA’s permanent collection galleries is a foundational work of conceptual and sound art, Robert Barry’s “90mc Carrier Wave (FM)”(1968), a piece consisting of an FM radio wave otherwise undetectable to the human ear unless made audible by a receiver. As a work of art, it cannot be perceived; it can only be conceived (or even believed). While the curators do acknowledge the close correspondence between conceptualism and sound art (philosopher Christoph Cox is preparing a thorough study on their mutual development in the 1960s), few artists in the exhibitions explore the radical possibilities of a completely dematerialized sound art, i.e., one without hardware. The most successful is Christine Sun Kim, an artist whose series of gestural drawings mix the movements of sign language with written language and musical notation to locate the “idea” shared by these distinct forms of communication. Most striking is All Day (2012), a drawing that turns the deaf artist’s life into a musical score, equating her years without sound to 126,144,000 rest bars. For Kim, sound is not heard, it either exists as a concept or is sensed through the body.
Barry’s and Kim’s conceptual proposition for sound art is taken as the central motif of The String and the Mirror, a smaller exhibition of sound-related work at the Lisa Cooley Gallery. Organized by Justin Luke of Audio Visual Arts, a gallery dedicated to sound art, and Lawrence Kumpf of ISSUE Project Room, the show is a response to the far noisier Soundings in that, on most days, the gallery is completely silent. A number of works riff directly off of Barry’s rigorous example. Dave Dyment’s sculpture “Nothing (for Robert Barry)” (2007) collects a series of pest control devices that emit sounds somewhat beyond human perception (a faint buzz is audible when passing it), while Alan Licht’s “How Loud is This (Gallery)?”(2013)employs a series of four decibel meters to make the viewer/listener conscious of the sounds that already exist in an otherwise silent exhibition space. Musician C. Spencer Yeh’s series “Bad Idea for a Sound Mind”(2013), presents a series of short and playful directives for “musical” performances screened directly onto the gallery wall. The mode of display evokes conceptualism, while the actions listed draw on a broader lineage, including Dada, Fluxus, and Actionism. However, the richest moment in the exhibition is the work of Akio Suzuki, a Japanese artist who has worked on the border between process art and sound since the 1960s. With “Ku” (2012), Suzuki presents a collection of detritus laid out on a series of small shelves placed along the wall. The items range from a crushed aluminum can to a broken coffee stirrer. In their mute simplicity, each object suggests a simple action rendered unto itself, and that action’s accompanying sound, whether it is the metallic crunch of the can or the short, sharp snap of the broken plastic stick. In one way, “Ku” is a sculptural remnant of a performance. But when placed near Marina Rosenfeld’s evocative lenticular photographs which record quick sound-making gestures, “Ku” transforms into a conceptual score for a composition to be completed in the viewer’s mind, each isolated object becoming a single note on a musical staff. These works prove that sometimes the most compelling and absorbing sound art doesn’t use sound at all.
ANDREW CAPPETTA is an art historian, educator, and writer. He has taught at Parsons the New School for Design, Hunter College, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art.