One way out of the creative impasse inadvertently generated by the white-cube gallery model may simply be to paint the walls black—or so The Empty Gallery founder Stephen Cheng commented half jokingly at the opening of “Sonorous Objects.” This sound-art-focused exhibit is currently on view at The Empty Gallery, a unique Hong Kong venue in operation since March of this year. All black, with a labyrinthine collection of sparsely lit rooms and a single narrow window, the gallery is housed on the 19th floor of an industrial building on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Arriving by elevator in the darkness makes for an unsettling experience, though one that attunes the viewer’s non-visual senses—even if only to avoid walking into a wall, or worse.
Fortunately, the pieces assembled for “Sonorous Objects” justify, and actively engage with, the sensory-deprivation-tank-like setting. Displaying work by early German sound-art practitioner Rolf Julius (1939–2011) along with that of three younger artists, the show avoids an overt theme, though each contribution felt bound together by a quiet subtlety and an organic, self-generative feeling. In contrast to the excessive flash and noise oftentimes seen in sound art displays, the overall atmosphere at the gallery is more meditative, requiring the viewer to look and listen closely.
ROLF JULIUS, Large Stonegarden (monochrome), 2010, stones, three speakers, MP3 player, wires and audio, 165 × 165 cm. Courtesy The Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
Julius is recognized as a pioneer for taking inspiration from American avant-garde composers such as La Monte Young and John Cage (1912–1992) and recontextualizing sound in an installation-based, rather than performance-based, setting. Minimal and understated, his individual pieces feel like a point of departure from which to understand the rest of the exhibit. In Large Stonegarden (monochrome) (2010), small rocks found near the artist’s home in Finland can be seen arranged in a rough square on the ground. At first it simply seems to resemble a Zen garden; but the thin, cicada-like drone that begins to quietly seep out of miniscule speakers interspersed within the rocks demonstrate the depth of Julius’ craft. Without drawing on obvious signifiers, the piece brings an idyllic atmosphere to the gallery, like the textured nightscape of outdoors. Unfortunately, because of the hushed sounds of Large Stonegarden it is sometimes difficult to detect them over the louder, surrounding pieces.
TOMOKO SAUVAGE, In Curved Water, 2015, sound installation with water drops, Sisal ropes, ice, water, porcelain bowls, hydrophones and sound system, dimensions variable. Courtesy The Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
Julius’s preeminent status within the exhibition aside, the centerpiece of the show was Japanese artist Tomoko Sauvage’s In Curved Water (2015), which grew out of her practice as an improvising musician playing amplified bowls tuned by water level—itself inspired by jal tarang, a traditional Indian percussion instrument. The title of Sauvage’s work, as well as its association with Indian classical music, harkens back to the oeuvre of American minimalist composer Terry Riley, known for his 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air. In the gallery’s main room, blocks of ice wrapped in twine rope hangs from the ceiling, refracting light from isolated spotlights in the dark; they are slowly dripping water into bowls, some of which are connected to hydrophones. The resonance of the bowls transform the pitter-patter of the melting ice into an unpredictable pulse reminiscent of wind chimes. Sauvage gave a brief performance in the eerie, cave-like room at the exhibition’s opening reception, highlighting how, in a sense, the installation itself was improvised. As she created a thick droning sound using additional water bowls and electronic echo sound effects, the melting ice provided random, live accompaniment—a role that might have otherwise been occupied by another musician or computer program.
For cristo fué y gaucamaya (2015), Venezuelan artist and self-taught musician Rubén D’Hers also left elements of his project up to chance, by using analog means to create sound. The installation consists of two wooden birdcages, each with steel strings and feathers attached to motors inside. Recordings of bird songs trigger the speed and activity of the motors, causing the feathers to brush the strings and let out guitar-like twangs. The feathers would occasionally become stuck, preventing a regular pattern from emerging and giving the disconcerting impression that the installation is alive rather than mechanized.
A similarly disquieting tone inhabited a set of films by French musician and filmmaker Marc Hurtado. Considering Hurtado’s association with noise music, one might have expected a cacophony accompanied by intense imagery; but Aurore (1989), Royaume (1991) and Bleu (1994), which are screened in a backroom, present grainy, oversaturated film footage of trees, shimmering water, and people, edited together in a flickering manner that brings to mind artist and poet Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine experiments of the 1960s. The soundtrack of the work is comprised of field recordings that seem connected to the footage, but also sound like unintelligible whispering—which makes the films at once soothing and uncomfortably intimate, as if the audience is intruding upon a private moment.
Such juxtaposition of relaxing calm with an underlying current of tension tie together the constituent pieces of “Sonorous Objects,” with their quiet gestures heightened, and occasionally given a sinister edge, by their pitch-black surroundings. By reaching back to sound art’s original antecedents—from Indian tradition to American minimalism—the exhibit feels somewhat disconnected from a new generation of sound art, one filled with digital gloss and dance-music references. Yet its emphasis on tactile sound creation and interaction with the natural world also felt like a much-needed antidote to the information overload of today’s media art.
“Sonorous Objects” is on view at The Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, until October 22, 2015