As is to be expected, MoMA’s first survey into the field of sound art starts with a certain degree of theatricality: 1,500 individually micro-tuned speakers sit on the wall on the way into the exhibition space, filling the space with a sharp white hiss. Shifting slightly with each change of position, Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall welcomes a lingering meditation, as viewers pace back and forth, moving their heads up and down close to the speakers or far away, the variance in intensity opening the space around it to any number of perceptual opportunities.
It’s just this sort of work that MoMA seeks to explore with Soundings, exploring the actual, physical and critical implications for the use of sound in fine art, but with a focused scope. Only 16 artists are exhibited, and the exhibition takes up only a small amount of space on the Museum’s third floor. But with the lack of an expansive atmosphere, MoMA makes each work count, selecting a series of works that combine sound visualizations, video accompaniment and intriguing sculptural installations to explore not only the nature of sound in art, but the implications and cultural constructs that sound embodies outside of a mere study of sonic practice.
Pressing the spatial and durational capacities that sound is capable of conveying, the show makes for a nuanced look at the medium, including acts of translation, transcription and conveyance as expressed through technological and creative techniques: in one room Carsten Nicolai’s Wellenwane Ifo, which uses a series of electronically charged metal rods and a series of lighted mirrors to illustrate the vibrations of low-end frequencies, magnifying rippling waves into a hypnotic, black and white spiral that viewers can easily lose themselves in.
But the works of Soundings don’t focus heavily on any one approach or technique; in one room, Susan Philipsz isolates specific parts of composer Pavel Haas’s final work, Study for Strings, performed shortly before the artist was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. In another, Hong-Kai Wang’s Music While We Work presents a series of recordings taken from a sugar factory in her Taiwanese hometown, made by employees who have worked there their whole lives. These conflations of the personal and the recorded, and the broader implications of attention and focus make a powerful statement on the behavior of sound in an environment, and its ability to engender precise reactions and interactions.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Haroon Mirza’s Frame for a Painting, an overwhelmingly composed, multi-element work that explores the act of space, perception and location through a combination of light, sound, and a Piet Mondrian borrowed from MoMA’s collection. Filling one half of a narrow space with acoustic padding, Mirza’s one-bit electronic score plays off the imbalanced resonance of the room, making the neon-adorned painting at the center of the room take on a frenetic, unmoored quality. Actively engaging with sound’s ability to define a space, Mirza creates an entire atmosphere for the reception of Mondrian’s piece, making it at turns inspiring, destabilizing, and ultimately, only tolerable for short stretches of time.
The use of sound as a medium ultimately approaches the challenging nature of space and environment, creating a network of reflection points, amplifications and resonances. Throughout these works, the use of sound becomes enmeshed in both physicality and more abstract space, between hearing and seeing. Much like Richard Garet’s rotating sculpture Before Me, buried in one corner of the room, and playing the looping sound of a marble on a metal turntable, a close listening demands a closer look as well.
— D. Creahan
Exhibition Site [MoMA: Soundings]
“Did You Hear That? It Was Art” [NY Times]
“Going to MoMA to See the Sounds” [NY Times]
“A Secret World of Communication” [NY Daily News]
“The Art of Noise Explored” [Wall Street Journal]
“MoMA: Soundings” [New York Magazine]