Shhh… Sounds in Spaces

[28 July 2004]

By Stefan Braidwood


Roots Manuva

It doesn’t matter what we call it, it’s how it’s perceived—does it affect people and does it resonate?
—David Byrne, from the exhibition brochure

The essence of music’s attraction lies in its temporary, intangible nature; in the way strong emotion can be created so piercingly out of the fragility of the moment, only to vanish back into noise. Modern culture has done much to cheapen the average person’s relationship to music, or at least trivialise it, with its fixation on the album as a commodity, tied to a certain artist’s view point, look and market. Tell them who (not what) you’re listening to, and PR will prescribe you a genre of linked attitudes and garments along with your identity—music’s importance has been shifted from the essentially hidden values of varied vibration, of sound, to the superficial, cultural things it can say about the listener or dancer. Radio’s habit of playing the same singles over and over further obscures the power of an artist to capture a unique moment, making the music seem part of the mundane cultural backdrop of the fad “that summer,” simultaneously trivialising it and making it appear an atemporal leaf in the annals of pop culture, forever logged and recorded on wax.

As there was never going to be a CD available of the compositions made for this exhibition, the 10 artists concerned (ranging from Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins via British hip-hop guru Roots Manuva, Chris Martin/Wayne Coyne/Michael Stipe collaborator Faultline, Japanese maverick pop producer Cornelius and Persian DJ/artist Leila to the aforemention David Byrne of Talking Heads) were going for ethereal and precious, their music’s temporary nature only underlined by the enduring silence of the paintings, casts, moulds and sculptures it would soundtrack. As each artist was assigned a certain room or area, and the music is distributed via an infrared headphones set rather than a tannoy system, the visitor also makes each composition personal and peculiar to them. Despite the brochures’ suggested tour sequence you are free to pass through the system triggers in any order, or for that matter remove the headphones to chat to a random passer-by about some plaster cast from Nuremberg that’s impressed you. The emphasis, then, is very much on your subjective, one-off experience of the exhibition—on personal interaction over universal promotion.

Starting off in the headset collection chamber, the importance of your impressions amongst the many is subtly impressed upon you by two different, colliding recordings and a large screen showcasing footage from around the museum. This ups your awareness of the milling, randomly tumultuous crowds around you and encourages a retreat into the comfort of your own senses, which is ideal as the aural and visual appeals made to them by the artists are many and varied. Elizabeth Fraser’s soundtrack to the Raphael Cartoons, with their auras of religious awe and hope, shies away from attempting to impose words on the spiritual, her voice stunningly angelic nonetheless. Jeremy Deller gives the room of Chinese artefacts—some of them dating back to 3000 BC—an oddly contemporary and informal air by providing the “tour” of a young girl named Celia as she describes her favourite objects in an endearing lisp,. Her stumbling descriptions reveal how ineffective verbal descriptions can be when describing artistry, and juxtaposing her appraisal of “two monkeyth eating peathcthes” with wonderfully ornate garments or a Boxer Rebellion-era throne provides a nice counterpoint to the weight of their dry, serious antiquity.

Faultline supplies music of a detached, icy beauty for the sculpture rooms’ disembodied heads, with a piece reminiscent of his last album; the fact that my headset malfunctioned for a minute or two only underlining how well the sonic backdrop fit when it sprang back into glacial calm. David Byrne and Leila cover areas that emphasize the museum as a utilitarian building, respectively the public loos and the cafe. Whilst Byrne is predictably slightly pretentious, his “Water Walking Symphony”, comprised of rhythmic splashing variations and a sampled toilet flush, plays charmingly on one’s expectations of the environment; Leila’s spectral, flutteringly gorgeous “The Wondering” provided perhaps my favourite moments of the exhibition, making the wait for my friends to queue for ham sandwiches amidst the impersonal, headphone-lacking bussle a strange and secretly intimate journey into the surreal.

Roots Manuva’s ghostly vigil amongst the luxurious Rococo mirrors and golden leaf in the Norfolk House Music Room was another highlight, his “You Rang Me Lord” wedding a mock-Elgar dub groove to his usual charismatic, spiritual rambling and imbuing the room’s relatively small spaces with an eerie sense of unseen depth. Even more fitting was Cornelius’ “Music for Glass Room”, his shimmering slice of playful electronic pop capturing exactly, as he says himself, “light reflecting through the glass” of the myriad colourful and imaginative forms of glasswork on show in that suggested last stop of the tour.

Whilst not all of the pairings, displays or compositions were as engagingly complementary as this, overall I found the exhibition to be a delightful success, the compositions enhancing and transforming scores of random moments into fixed, special memories. It is comforting to realise that amidst the current global atmosphere of aggressive tension, contemporary artists from such varied cultural backgrounds and countries can provide complementary and contrasting insight to works that may be millennia old, and whose heritage is just as colourful and various. And the focal point of all this thought, endeavour and emotion remains the observer in every one of us, united in that private darkness between the senses. If you are in London before the end of August, I urge you to give Sounds & Spaces a visit, for despite all the beauty and innovation on display it remains a potent reminder of art’s fundamental purpose: to explore both the dimensions of humanity as a whole, and of you, alone in yourself.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/shhh-sounds-in-spaces-2004/