For art enthusiasts who have seen or read about the sound show currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield explores a different, but related focus. Perhaps the front desk assistant says it best, "MoMA's sound, we're music."
As history has proven, the criteria for neatly categorizing "sound" as purely "music," "noise," or "art" is a murky endeavor and in many ways a futile pursuit for the museumgoer. Luckily, curators Richard Klein and Kelly Taxter make this philosophical quagmire more manageable. In his exhibition text, Klein writes: "The definition of music within the larger field of sound is in the ear (or eye) of the listener… and [is] open to constant reinterpretation." Taxter, writing on Martin Creed, offers: "What might be considered music…[is] tied to the object's inherent qualities."
Wading through Creed's interactive installation, "Half the air in a given space" (1998), a gallery half-occupied by hundreds of gold balloons piled above eye level, visitors may wonder how to interpret their experience as music. Sound-wise, the balloons shriek as they rub against each other, static electric currents sizzle and pop as electrons jump from hair to body to clothing to latex surfaces. Visually, the 360-degree sea of buttery dirigibles swallows the viewer whole. This multisensory buzz will dim into silence upon physically arresting all movement, but only momentarily. A mechanical "pound" coming from a distant part of the museum (another work by Creed cleverly installed on the second floor) infiltrates and serves to remind us how sound is alive, can travel beyond its referent and sneak or bleed into public and private space. When it's time to grope for the lost exit, viewers may realize their sublime disorientation with fear or ecstasy, and spilling out into the familiar white hallways, they may experience relief or a longing to return.
In my experience on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, I exited the space just in time to see a child sprint into the semi-permeable color field. She taunted her mother, "You can't find me!" as mom followed repeating "Hello?" every three seconds. As their voices and laughter mingled with the latex tunes, I realized the installation at work. For the solo viewer, the music was an improvised jazz duet between the participant (the player) and the balloons (the instrument), whereas for two or more viewers, the music involved a collaborative game of Marco-Polo, in which players took turns leading, following and mirroring one another.
In 1966 Higgins coined the term "intermedia" to describe the way sound and the other senses mingle within the traditional arts (painting, drawing, sculpture, performance) and new media arts (photography, video, music), to communicate various messages. The five exhibitions that will take over the Aldrich through March 9, 2014 — including solo shows by James Mollison, Simon Blackmore, Xaviera Simmons and the aforementioned Martin Creed, and a group exhibition of artwork by composers who have influenced Sol LeWitt — do this on their own accords.
The first gallery that visitors will encounter, James Mollison's Disciples series, portrays life-sized photographs of concertgoers, to explore how music and celebrity fetish influences fashion. Each photograph displays a line of six or seven people, facing forward, shot from the knees up, who attended the same concert. A pair of headphones dangling nearby plays one song from the concert, accompanied by a wall label that lists the name of the recorded artist, the date of the concert and the location of the venue. Viewers look first, listen to the song second, and read the wall label to confirm their knowledge of the image and sound third (an exercise in how we look at "intermedia" art). The photographs confirm cultural stereotypes — Björk fans are fair skinned, slim, 20-something women boasting eclectic layers of second-hand clothing; P. Diddy fans are largely black. As the die-hard middle-aged Rolling Stones fans suggest, Mollison is more interested in exploring "the music fan" as an aging physical carrier, pollinator and poster-child of music than he is dismantling the collective stereotypes attached to these images based on age, gender, sex, class, religion or politics.
Meanwhile, Steve Reich's written score for a "Slow Motion Sound" (1967) challenges viewers to read music differently. Instead of presenting a score in conventional music notation, a five-line bar dotted with notes, Reich pencils in instructions: Very gradually slow down a recorded sound to many times its original length without changing its frequency or spectrum at all. The possible interpretations of Reich's score are as endless and expansive as the routes around Creed's balloon room, and point to the way that musicians may take creative license to interpret what appears to be fixed.
Reich's work is one of 26 contemporary scores that the celebrated Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt collected during his lifetime (1928-2007). While LeWitt is almost exclusively included in exhibitions as an artist, this show profiles him as an avid collector of music and art. A gallery recreated to mimic the small room in LeWitt's Chester Connecticut home that housed his encyclopedic music collection of 3,970 60-minute cassette tapes hints at music as his muse.
The show pushes viewers to understand music as an actor that plays a conceptual, emotional, political and historical role in the networks of information exchange that guide our everyday interactions, consumer choices, and the way we interpret visual information. Upon leaving, rethink the click of the automatic counter that measures the end of your stay.
Through March 9, 2014, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield,