Exhibition Review

Sonic Boom - The Art of Sound Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre London 27. April - 18. June 2000

Sonic Boom is the first major exhibition about sound art in Great Britain. That is an achievement in itself. David Toop, the curator of the show, and himself active in sound art and as a writer, invited 23 artists, 11 from Britain. Toop puts the emphasis on sculptures which produce sounds and that is the problem: when one enters the exhibition one is immediately overwhelmed by a dense cloud of noise and sounds. How many sounding objects can one put into one space?

David Toop defends his approach with the help of a well absorbed aesthetic, one that recalls John Cage:

'Firstly, it wasn't a problem, and secondly, I didn't want to keep them separate. The artist Paul Burwell said a very nice thing. He said, I wasn't so much the curator of the show but the composer of this show. And the character of music in the present time is that it all overlaps. ...We are saturated by sound now. We walk around and we move through constantly changing soundscapes, different types of music, different genres of music overlap all the time....And you are almost walking through an environment where one sound overlaps and then you walk away from that sound and it fades and you walk into a new sound. So the gallery is the total, immersed experience and hopefully that transforms the gallery from what we think of as being a rather sterile space for showing art to something which is much more alive and human.'

The resulting cacophony certainly doesn't do justice to Max Eastley's delicate sound sculptures. These fine sculptures, made of thin wire and driven by small electro-motors, produce barely audible sounds in an unpredictable way, which grips the attention of the viewer.

Some artists tried to escape the overall sound contamination by creating their own, enclosed spaces. London based Australian Paul Schütze, for example, projects in his space film-sequences on the walls, which get reflected on the glass floor. Through different loudspeakers he creates complex soundscapes. Brian Eno, the inventor of ambient music and the master of self-branding, always emphasising appearance over substance, created a dark space, where you can see nice pictures coming out of the dark projected on the walls and hear equally nice sounds evolving in slow motion. In 1984, I saw a practically identical installation in Berlin. Isn't it time to move on?

There are also funny or absurd objects. Stephan von Huene's sculpture is a wooden puppet, making expressive gestures, as if it desperately wants to communicate something. But all one hears are odd, electronic speech fragments, created by a primitive speech synthesiser. Maybe there is a connection to von Huene's experience of growing up with three different languages and not being able to speak one properly. Chico MacMurtrie, from New Mexico, created a skeletal robotic drummer, which frantically beats a drum from time to time and makes other noises. Paulo Feliciano and Rafael Toral, both from Portugal, exploit in their Toyzone the typically absurd sounds of animated toys.

One aspect of sound art has been almost completely neglected by David Toop: sound spaces. Only Christina Kubisch from Berlin created a true sound space, where the viewer, equipped with headphones, can walk about and create his own soundscape. The sound is transmitted to the headphones by magnetic induction. Kubisch says, 'In this exhibition there are a lot of sound sculptures, many objects and only a few sound spaces. I was lucky to be out here on the terrace of the Hayward Gallery. I prefer to work within the spaces of architecture and sound. Your perception changes when you walk around here and hear something unusual. You look at things in a different way, because you hear something unexpected.'

One can see the skyline of London and acoustically one finds oneself in a jungle. The experience of the city jungle is contrasted with the acoustic experience of the Amazonian (or any other) jungle. It is an experience every user of a Walkman knows very well.

Sound art is a relatively new phenomenon. It is a convergence of art and sound. Musically it has its roots in serialism, which stressed the separation and eventual emancipation of the parameters of a musical tone: pitch, duration, volume and sound colour. It lead to the extension of what Adorno called 'musical material'. For Cage, any sound could be used musically. In addition, the huge progress in computer technology made the exploration of the inner world of sounds possible. Artists -in fact just about anyone - can now use sound in a sophisticated way. The Japanese Ryoji Ikeda, for example, used the strange, unreal qualities of sine tones for his white tunnel.

The Sound sculptor-artist Max Eastley, or audio artists, like William Furlong or Barry Bermange, have been active in this country for many years, but they were rarely granted public space for their work. Most of them exhibited and performed on the continent, from where most of their works have been commissioned. On the continent, sound art has been an established art form for some years. In 1996 there was a large exhibition in Berlin where each object of sound art had its own space in different parts of the city. Academics are now writing learned books about it.

Now, even in conservative Britain, the interest in sound art seems to be growing. Only in March there was an sound art exhibition in Oxford on a smaller scale. David Toop says, 'I think sound art must be in the air. There have been major exhibitions in Berlin, in Vienna and in Japan in recent years. For all our reputation in music in Britain we seem to have been slow to catch on to the idea of sound art. It is something which I have been involved with since the early seventies but it has taken this long for it to be recognised at this level and accepted as part of the culture. But I also feel there is a huge amount of activity. A lot of artists, a lot of musicians are working in this area now. Sound seems to be a medium that people feel is very interesting and engaging now.'

The Hayward Gallery has published a catalogue, including two CDs. David Toop has written an essay. With all its limitations, and Toop's personal preferences, the Sonic Boom exhibition is worth visiting. It will surely provoke further discussion.

Jean Martin

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