Today seemed particularly cacophonous as I walked the galleries at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacifica Film Archive (BAM/PFA) the L@TE Friday Nights performance series in conjunction with the (ironically named) “Silence” exhibition. I arrived early to view the exhibition, the crowds chatting – a resonating din of voices fully engulfing each room as I worked my way around the “Silence” exhibition. The architecture of the museum simply defies silence in general, fights it – makes it an impossibility. To its service, the “Silence” exhibition questions the very nature of viewing music and performance art here. The entirely concrete megalith architecture of the museum is the perfect acoustical cavern for performance, especially anything ambient or orchestral. I am sure that this is debatable, since the abstract, sharp angles and large cold, un-yielding plains bounce sound all over the place – especially voices during those quiet, hushed viewing moments that one often finds themselves in at museums. Someone in one area of the museum sounds as if they are whispering behind you and then at the next turn a paper shuffling in the ticket kiosk sounds like a surround-sound quotidian audio intervention.
Tuning out the white noise, I made my way to the galleries, stopping first at the work of Steve Roden where I was pleased to finally see his painting “Tacet Permutations” in person. In an email interview this past December, I remarked to Roden about his paintings based on sound, which are so colorful. His response: “i [sic] don’t want people to look at a painting called “silence”, and to see a white thing and to feel comfortable walking away… i want a much more complex experience both on the side of making as well as for the viewer”. I find this admission very apropos now because Roden shares the Silence galleries with Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting”, although not in the same room. Meanwhile, near his paintings and sculpture in the exhibition is a table with books where viewers can sit and read. The book entitled “365×433” is a 400 page diary, so to speak, of the artist’s written recollections of re-enacting/performing John Cage’s 4’33” for 365 days. It comes in three successive volumes, four months each, which maintains an intimate scale that I appreciate. Rather than binding it all together in one heavy “dictionary of days”, the three versions allow for several people to sit together and read, or for creating a daily reading ritual that can easily accompany banal routine. In this way, the reader can build a familiarity of what it means to hear, listen, perform and reflect along with Roden. Poetic and revealing, the text is honest but not always cheery – sometimes rhetorical, and sometimes conceptual:
“April 5, 10:27 am
train station, cork, ireland:
it is strange to think about how one is able to invent a sound and place it within the mind (as if it has ears!). when people speak of inner voices or inner ears, what are they truly hearing? when i focus such voices inside of me, i hear no timbre nor tone & i tend to see words rather than hear them – even if it feels as if they are sounding.” – Steve Roden, excerpt “365×433”
The happy moments indicate the strangeness of neighborhoods, scholarly travel and systematic patterns, while the sadder moments cause a crooked, bittersweet smile when we can’t help but relate. In all, the silence is overbearing… not a noise to be heard when reading. Visual and aural imaginary collide in these readings. I leave the books promising myself to listen better in the following days. In the mean-time, I heard a soft shuffle and a breath – I look up to see a woman rolling on the floor about 10 feet in front of me.
The sun is setting just before 7:30 pm now, and the light is coming in at various angles of the skylights in the galleries. The woman is in a black, casual outfit with high top Converse sneakers, black tights with torn sides and a fitted black jersey-knit top. She is performing the Tino Sehgal piece, “Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing Bruce and Dan and other things”, (2000). The scene is constructed and strange – there are a few seats you can sit in to watch her if you want, but I stand off to the side. She sits up on the floor and then rolls over, curls up, slowly. At one point she raises both of her legs, lowers them and then twists her torso, draping her arm over her face. At another moment she notices that I notice her. In my peripheral view, the Bruce Nauman piece, “Violence, Violence, Silence” (1981-1982) blinks in neon lights across the way in the other room. This concrete floor that she is on cannot be comfortable – indeed it has to be somewhat painful.
The implications of the silent, flashing Nauman are reminders of the subtle submission and domination that threads through Sehgal’s work; a kind of willing discomfort that both performer and viewer participate in. I decide to walk by her at a daring distance of only about 18 inches, and I see her low-key styled, black and red “scrunchie” has fallen out of her hair and is curled on the floor nearby. The clatter of hollow wood instruments and the scraping of chairs draws my attention to the banister.
Below, the 8-piece cello orchestra, Celli of UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra is getting ready to perform and people are taking seats to watch. A museum representative welcomes the night’s performances, instructing the audience that the chairs can be turned around to face the other direction when the second act performs. Suddenly, for the first time in the last hour and a half it is profoundly quiet. I purposely back away before they begin and head into another gallery to view the work with the accompanying audio as a means of looking with sound and to see if the work resonates differently. An abrupt, deep and conjoined moment dramatically breaks the silence as the cellos begin in unison. I look at the “White Painting” (1951) by Robert Rauschenberg and decide implicitly that hearing music at this moment completely changes the work. In fact, if more exhibitions included music for each exhibition, I wondered what the implications would be, how the interpretations of the work would be influenced or if the visuals would become reimaged as something else. The live piece being played was “Stagioni, inter alia” (2012) by Michael Nicholas.
A brief search notes that the music selections for the night are all by composers that are still alive and apparently this is a gasp-able thing in classical music. Looking around the galleries at artwork by both living and deceased artists and hearing the contemporary music at the same time proposed a new-found resonance for classical traditions that are embedded with a long (yet scarcely dead) formality – suddenly the art I had looked at for years felt as fresh as the music was contemporary. The music fades away, poetic yet lingering, occasionally one or two cellos play in unison and others join later, creating an ebb and flow, then building to another spell of everyone in unison, repeating, then suddenly stopping in one tiny lingering chord at the end. Yet, in the moment just before the audience claps, I hear static.
The video “Mouth the Mouth” by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1975) is playing on a television in the gallery. Celli is preparing for its next segment, chairs move, a bow drops, and as they begin, Cha’s video seems to be in sync. Text rolls across the screen and is in perfect complement to the orchestra. Geometric black and white shapes that are reminiscent of fragmented typography create abstract shapes that are illegible, yet recognizable as letters. The TV screen hisses like the sound of water coming from a faucet or rain rushing down a gutter. The black and white “snow” on the screen creates an ambient, “white noise” that neutralizes while hearing the cinematic quality of the musical piece being played: “These Feathered Walls” (2011) by Anica Galindo. Instead of a desired need for visuals that screen snow sometimes instills, it imparts a calm that allows for escapism when viewing it with the live music. As I watch and listen, I suddenly realize that this is a once in a lifetime moment: these two artworks will never be together again. At this moment, the curatorial focus of the exhibition could not be more clear: “Silence considers the absence of sound as both subject and medium in modern and contemporary art and film. […] – silence as a symbol, a memorial device, and oppressive force or a state to be inhabited through performance”.
The exhibition at BAM/PFA is co-curated by Toby Kamps of the Menil Collection in Houston, and Stevie Seid, the BAM/PFA video curator, with curatorial direction in the main galleries by Lucinda Barnes, chief curator and director of programs and collections. An additional performance that night was by Thingamajigs, a large East Bay performance collective that uses several formal and homemade instruments and sound media devices including water goblets, accordion, flute, electric guitar and a variety of mixing boards and pedals to create detailed orchestrations that are free-form yet intricately composed. They were joined by the dance troupe Dandelion Dance Theater.
-Contributed by Leora Lutz