Text by Alan Sykes
Artists have been using sound in their art for at least a century. Recently the line between music composers and artists who happen to use sound is becoming even more blurred. In 2010 Susan Philipsz was the first artist to win the Turner Prize for a purely audio work, while in 2004 Bruce Nauman “filled” the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with a series of sound sculptures or installations. One of the Baltic’s most memorable commissions was Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet”, in which the public walked around a circle of 40 speakers, each one carrying a single singer’s part from Thomas Tallis’ “Spem in alium”. In the BALTIC39’s latest show, Listening, Janet Cardiff is represented by “Cabin Fever”, in which a wooden cabinet shows a static diorama of a forest at night, while headphones play a faintly disturbing sound track which provokes narrative images.
In Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Song”, the artist’s three nieces, representing the Sirens of Greek mythology, sit on a raised dais in the Ionic and Doric splendour of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, singing repetitive songs for over six hours, while a fixed camera circles the dais and its singers. Haroon Mirza’s “Siren” continues the theme, in a much more abstract cum random manner, with a droning radio affected by the static of a light bulb rotating around a cymbal. Mirza is interesting in the space where abstract noise meets musical composition. In “A million cm3 of private space ii”, a relatively rare silent work by the artist, the viewer squats on a rock – in fact a block of Purbeck marble by Ryan Gander, called “Everything is learned ii” – under a hood consisting of a cubic metre of blackened space suspended from the ceiling, in what the exhibition’s curator says “recollects John Cage’s famous trip to an anechoic chamber at Harvard”, although sound, and light, still creep into the work. Muffled sound is also present in Amalia Pica’s “Eavesdropping”, in which the audience is invited to put their ears to glasses fixed at various heights to a wall, and try to hear muffled sounds and conversations.
Also shown is documentation from Max Neuhaus’ “Listen” series of acoustic tours of New York and from some of his other works. The curator of Listening, Sam Belinfante said: “I wanted to create an exhibition that interrogates the act of listening itself, rather than merely its aural objects. Listening engages the body in a multitude of ways; from the intimate pressing of an ear to a wall to the staggering din of a thunderclap that knocks you off your feet. Listening is not only the subject matter of this exhibition but also the method by which works are encountered and explored. I want visitors to be playfully arrested and surprised by the ways in which they are directed around the space and through the many different works on display.”
Image: Haroon Mirza, ‘A Million cm3 of Quiet Space ii’, photographed by Colin Davison.