The Power of Sound as an Art Form
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “Conflicted Phonemes” (2012) is a visual interpretation of speech from Somali asylum seekers.
By ELLA DELANY
Published: October 3, 2013
The sounds of Indian activists chanting and reciting poems fill Tate Modern’s Project Space in London, part of Amar Kanwar’s “A Night of Prophecy” (2002). Nearby, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s voice map, “Conflicted Phonemes” (2012), explores the influence of accent on Somali asylum seekers, offering a visual interpretation of their speech.
A still from Amar Kanwar’s “A Night of Prophecy” (2002), in which Indian activists are heard chanting poems.
The two works are part of the sound-art exhibition “Word.Sound.Power.” that, according to Tate Modern’s Web site, “takes a moment to listen to the harmony and dissonance of voices rising.”
Tate Modern is not alone in exploring art through the ears. “Sound art is having a moment right now,” Gascia Ouzounian, a lecturer at the Sonic Arts Research Center at Queen’s University Belfast, said by e-mail. “A wave of recent exhibitions has very much brought sound art to the attention of the wider public.”
That attention was captured with the opening in August of “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” the first-ever major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York dedicated to sound art. But the form is gaining prominence and acceptance in museums and galleries around the world, with the success of SoundFjord, a London gallery dedicated exclusively to sonic exhibitions and research; the exhibition “RPM: Sound Art China” traveling to Shanghai from Hamilton, New York, in October; and a slew of recent exhibitions in locations as diverse as Hong Kong, Paris and Karlsruhe, Germany.
“Artists brought sound into their work a long time ago,” Barbara London, the curator of the “Soundings” show at the Museum of Modern Art, explained, “yet working with the ‘material’ of sound as an art form and its conceptualization has recently expanded dramatically.”
The phenomenon is not limited to the United States. “In New York, as well as Stockholm, London, Milan, Kobe, Melbourne and Delhi, art centers known as “alternative spaces” emerged and for decades have supported the evolving sonic arts,” Ms. London said. “Sound art is a global phenomenon.”
Sound is at the heart of Dajuin Yao’s, work. He is based in Hangzhou, China. “China is one of the noisiest countries in the world,” Mr. Yao said, “and ‘sound art’ plays a very crucial and ironic role in the society here.” In “Garden of Buddhahood,” a piece by Mr. Yao, the audience walks between lotus lamps that play recordings of monks chanting. It is, the artist said, a subconscious tribute to Steve Reich’s celebrated “Come Out”— which uses a single source, a recording of Daniel Hamm, injured in the Harlem riots of 1964.
According to research by Seth Cluett of Princeton University, there were 128 sound art exhibitions in museums worldwide from 2000 to 2009, up from just 21 from 1970 to 1979; and Ms. Ouzounian said that over the past four years the number of sound art exhibitions has continued to rise rapidly. That expansion can, in many ways, be attributed to advances in technology, but also to a desire to push the boundaries of art.
In an international art world dominated by visual works, sound has long been perceived as a challenging and esoteric medium. Traditionally, the term has been used to describe works by artists who choose sound or hearing as a topic or medium, generally without musical notations or musicians to interpret. As far back as 1913, the Italian Futurist Luigi Rusollo wrote a manifesto titled “The Art of Noises,” in which he described the modern urban soundscape and its musicality.
Many artists and curators today have opted for a more flexible definition of the art form, rejecting experimental music or composition as a requisite but allowing for strong visual or conceptual components. In some cases, sound art has no aural elements at all. At the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, some exhibits, like Camille Norment’s “Triplight” are silent. That piece features an excavated, brightly lit 1955 Shure microphone that casts a pattern of flickering shadows.
Haroon Mirza, a London-based artist who was awarded the Silver Lion at the 54th Venice Biennale for his installations “Sick” and “The National Apvailion of Then and Now,” suggests these flexible boundaries can mask a superficial disdain from the visual art world toward sound. “I think the art world sometimes likes to take the easy option,” Mr. Mirza said.
Mr. Mirza warned that the recent interest in sound art may be of limited duration. “I would argue that the interest in sound art is more of a fad partly related to the 100th birthday of John Cage last year,” he said. Cage challenged conventional definitions of music, and his “4:33,” a work of silence, was considered by many to be more a philosophical statement than a musical composition.
Even at institutions of higher learning with a history of fairly traditional approaches to the arts, sound has made its way onto the curriculum. Columbia University in New York began offering this autumn a master’s degree in Sound Art, a joint program of its department of music and its school of the arts. Degrees in sound art are also available at the University of Brighton in England; at the Nordic Sound Art Program, which offers a master’s degree in partnership with various institutions in Scandinavia, and the Sonic Arts Research Center in Belfast, among others.
While sound-recording technology has been around for over a century, innovations continue to open fresh avenues of artistic exploration. For “Voice,” one of the pieces at the “Word. Sound. Power.” show at Tate Modern, for instance, the French-Norwegian artist Caroline Bergvall used a transducer that transforms the surface it is placed on into an output speaker. “Placed on my entrance window,” she said, “the viewer walks through a relocated voice. This technology was not available even a few years ago.”
“We now see artists making use of new technologies including multichannel audio systems, computer-programming software, and computer-mediated sound spatialization, for example in installations by the French artist Cédric Maridet,” said Yang Yeung, a Hong Kong-based curator and the founder of an organization calledSoundpocket.
Even a mobile phone can become a creative force. Surabhi Saraf, an Indian sound artist and performer, attaches a tiny stereo microphone to hers. Ms. Saraf’s “Grains,” shown at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in May, explored the idea of a single grain of sound. Layers of Ms. Saraf’s vocals were combined with recordings of trickling grains, and the auditory experience was enhanced by live image projections.
The growing affordability of recording devices, combined with innovative new technologies, has helped sound become an increasingly entrenched part of the gallery and museum world, Ms. Bergvall said.
While some works consist of a simple file in MP3 format, installations can pose unique challenges for buyers and curators, as they can incorporate complex technological or gargantuan sculptural elements. Many museums and galleries remain wary of the medium because sound is deemed more intrusive than a sculpture or painting.
So far, neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s has sold a work of sound art. But Benjamin Godsill, a contemporary art specialist at the auction house Phillips, sees strong potential for the sale of works featuring sound to private buyers. “The market has a tremendous ability to take the avant garde and find sellable items within it,” he said.
The Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard has sold installations, images and recordings of his work. “It is possible to change and adapt works of sound for different spaces,” Mr. Kirkegaard pointed out. “If you ask me, a sound art piece can be many things; photos, objects or things that only sound occasionally, or very, very quietly.”
In 2008, Mr. Kirkegaard sold four photos of the recording sites of his installation “Aion,” now at the Museum of Modern Art, to a private buyer. “Aion” features recordings created in abandoned spaces in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
If the visual art world continues to turn toward sound, more sales and commissions could follow — especially if sound artists are willing to adapt their works to different spaces. “I do hope that artists who are less known within the mainstream visual art world, but who have been influential within sound art will find increasingly sustained support,” Ms. Ouzounian said, mentioning the works of artists like Anna Friz, Christina Kubisch and Kaffe Matthews.
Still, it seems for many artists, sales are not the ultimate goal. “A lot of sound art is not made from an intention to be sold,” Ms. Saraf said. “It is more about the act of listening and experiencing the space in relation to the sound.”