A4 Contemporary Arts Center (#18 Luxehills Boulevard Section 2, Luxetown, Shuangliu, Chengdu), June 15–September 14, 2014
On June 14, Chengdu’s A4 Contemporary Arts Center veered from its regular program of visual art with “Around the Sounds—Sound and Visual Exhibition” (in spite of having hosted numerous experimental music performances, this was Chengdu’s first sound art exhibition). This exhibition includes ten works, each offering multiple combinations of expression—sound and sculpture, sound and infrared interactive installations, and sound accompanying images. Inevitably, the sounds overlapped, and the three floors of space become an auditorium for layers upon layers of sounds. But it was not noisy: the works involving voice recordings or shrill sounds are displayed with headphones; thus, the sounds emitted throughout the space are almost exclusively mechanical.
Presented in collaboration with the Grame, the National Center for Musical Creation in Lyon, France, the exhibition does not follow the regular format of a group show, but rather is a documentation exhibition showcasing certain concepts. Grame’s focus begins with “musique concrete,” pioneered by the French engineer Pierre Schaeffer in 1948, which would become one of the theoretical foundations for “electronic music.” Exemplified in this exhibition by works comprised solely of machinery, early musique concrète did not incorporate vocal or instrumental accompaniment, but rather employed samplers to draw discrete sound units from the surroundings—metallic clangs, dripping water, creaking wood. He physically edited or spliced magnetic tapes to assemble pieces of music—without musical instruments or scores, such music was focused on concrete sounds instead of abstract man-made creations. In the 1940s, this was a breakthrough, even though today it is considered conventional practice.
The works exhibited in “Around the Sounds” incorporate human voice, and thus do not adhere to the conceptual purity of musique concrète, yet the sound is still presented as an abstract audio accompaniment—a symbol of sound. Zoe Benoit’s Archisony series reverts to early production techniques, with about a dozen recordings sampled from an industrial setting—the sounds of metal clanging against cement, or the artist’s own voice echoing in an empty stairwell—and played through headphones. Vincent Carinola’s installation “Monolith” focuses on interaction, as a series of three tall glass pillars respond to contact—illuminating where touched and emitting electronic sounds along to the hand gestures. Such a simple touch-based interaction, when amplified to such a scale, results in a powerful effect. Finally, three works by Pierre Schaeffer, the founder of musique concrete, as along with documentation of two of his interviews, are also on view in the space.
Though the idea of “musique concrète” may be fascinating, in an exhibition, the spatial, visual effect must be considered—for viewers today, the primary logic is still visual, while works that are only heard or felt tend to be neglected. The problematic is brought up in the exhibition title “Around the Sounds” (“Shengchang yu Shiyu” in Chinese, or literally “Auditory and Visual Fields”). As the curator James Giroudon explains, “Musical works are more and more multidimensional. The sounds are spread from several sources and create new vibratory forces. The concept of space was imposed during the twentieth century as an essential parameter of musical thought. It is a system of traditional references, and often isolated, which has evolved and mutated. The visual arts have include the sonic dimension as a compositional element; the production of moving images increase this incursion of duration in the visual arts and so they form a part of a spatio-temporal dimension.” Denys Vinzant’s “d’Ore et d’Espace” draws the most attention: situated on the top floor, the large glass installation consists of 74 glass panes of varying dimensions covered in golden music notation. The huge, darkened space seems like a dreamscape, disturbed by a faintly resonating metallic tapping which can only be heard if visitors stand close to the panes. The tiny speakers, which are no larger than fingernails and installed at the top of the piece, each emit a slightly different tone, so that moving through the piece brings to mind a choir of pixies.