sat 21/10/2017

Listening, BALTIC 39, Hayward Touring | reviews, news & interviews

Listening, BALTIC 39, Hayward Touring

Listening, BALTIC 39, Hayward Touring

Tune in to Korean women who use special sounds to dive deep and trucks that change your radio station

Ragnar Kjartansson, Song, 2011Courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York/i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

Traditionally, art exhibitions have been about looking, but as more and more artists cross boundaries to engage with sound, touch and movement or to use film and video, work that is static and silent is becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Curated by Sam Belinfante as a Hayward touring show, Listening focuses on the relationship between sight and sound. Ironically, the most resonant piece is totally silent. Sound Holes, 2007, by Christian Marclay (pictured below right) consists of photographs of the perforated metal plates indicating an intercom in a lift or beside a front door. Patterned in circles, clusters or starbursts, the radiating holes seem, almost comically, to broadcast the voices of the hidden speakers.

Christian Marclay, Sound Holes, 2007The most determinedly annoying piece is totally non-visual. Constructed according to the proportions of his bedroom, Prem Sahib’s closed chamber pulsates with party vibes so loud they penetrate to your bones. The visceral sensation is exciting yet sickening, just as the sound is an invitation but also a barrier; it's a deliberate, in-your-face irritant, like the noise emanating from a teenager’s bedroom or the boom box thundering inside a stretch limo hosting a private event.

In this context, the silence offered by Haroon Mirza’s A Million cm3 of Quiet Space, 2013 (pictured below left) ought to be a blessing; but to get the benefit, you have to duck under the rim of his anechoic chamber, a head-sized box that blocks out all sound, and perch awkwardly on a block of stone. Once you’ve arrived, the sensation is rather unpleasant – partly because you are so low to the ground, partly because absolute silence feels stifling, but mostly because the carpet lining the box has a pungent aroma. I imagine it's a bit like being buried alive.

In his film Air Cushioned Ride, 2006, Anri Sala achieves the perfect match between sound and image. As he circles a parking lot full of trucks in Arizona, the baroque music playing on his car radio is interrupted by country and western. Far from being random, the switch happens at specific places, including every time he passes a truck with "Air Cushioned Ride'' written on the side. In a phenomenon known as “cross modulation”, the tall vehicles are blocking the radio waves from one station in favour of the other; to the viewer, it feels as though Sala’s space is being invaded by the truckers’ music, as he circles their patch.

Some exhibits are better as ideas than actualities. Katie Paterson has recorded the moment a dying star is snuffed out. This momentous event results in little more than a grating sound, so brief it could easily be missed. When our earth finally dies, will its demise be similarly unremarkable? This sobering thought is, perhaps, the point.

Hannah Rickards has gone to great lengths to record a thunderclap, then to stretch and analyse the sound in order to recreate it with musicians before morphing it back into the sound of thunder. The net effect is neither convincing as a musical score nor as a natural phenomenon, so little seems to have been gained from all that effort.

For SeaWomen, 2012, Mikhail Karikis filmed the Haenyeo, women who dive for pearls off the South Korean island of Jeju. He was alerted to their presence by the high-pitched sound of the breathing technique they’ve developed, which allows them to descend 20 meters and resurface as many as 80 times in a day. The film pays tribute to a dying art, since the women are all elderly and their daughters choose less hazardous occupations.

While the Koreans are the real deal, Ragnar Kjartansson’s three nieces spent a day at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (main picture) reclining on a plinth decked in turquoise satin so as to resemble the sea – pretending to be creatures of the waves. On film we see them combing their hair, gazing in mirrors, reading, strumming a guitar and singing a refrain from Allen Ginsberg’s poem Song. The mythical Sirens lured sailors onto the rocks with the beauty of their voices; if Kjartansson's ambition was to similarly seduce his audience, he fails since the girls behave more like bored teenagers on a sleep-over, than Muses of the lower world.

The sound quality of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Cabin Fever, 2004, is so captivating that listening to the slamming car doors, hurried footsteps, distant doorbell, raised voices, shattering glass, gunshots, unanswered phone and buzzing flies one is propelled into the heart of a murder mystery. Housed in a box, the small, rather crummy woodland tableau accompanying the soundtrack is entirely redundant; the pictures conjured in one’s head are far more evocative.

While Cardiff and Miller glory in the spatial potential of sound, Imogen Stidworthy seems to take us inside the head of Sacha van Loo, a man whose hearing is so acute he can determine a telephone number from its dial tones. Blind from birth, van Loo works for the Belgian Federal Police analysing wiretap recordings. Filmed in stark black and white to remind us of the darkness that envelops van Loo, Sacha, 2011, (pictured above) focuses on a close-up of his face. Witnessing his responses to a sound that, to most ears, is little more than a bleep, one becomes acutely aware of his enhanced ability to hear against most people’s propensity for looking. Watching a film has seldom felt more creepily voyeuristic – we are snooping, and so is he – or more poignant. 

Katie Paterson has recorded the moment a dying star is snuffed out. When our earth finally dies, will it’s demise be similarly unremarkable?

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