Sound and Its Power as New Art Form ; Tate Modern Joins Ranks of Museums Exploring Audio Alongside Visual

By Delany, Ella | International Herald Tribune, October 4, 2013 | Go to article overview

Sound and Its Power as New Art Form ; Tate Modern Joins Ranks of Museums Exploring Audio Alongside Visual


Delany, Ella, International Herald Tribune


In a slew of recent exhibitions in locations as diverse as London, New York, Hong Kong, Paris and Karlsruhe, Germany, art is being explored through the ears.

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.

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. …

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