When we think of art, we usually think of visual objects. After all, when we go to museums, it’s paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs that we see lining the gallery walls.
Yet, as “Soundings: A Contemporary Score”, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York reminds us, the concept of art as commodity—an object that can easily be sold, bought and collected—is not always a given. Featuring recent work by young artists from around the world, “Soundings” explores sound as a medium for art—a medium, of course, that is uniquely intangible, resulting in artworks that are not easy to commodify.
MoMA’s first-ever group exhibition to focus only on sound as a mode of artistic expression, “Soundings” is impressive for its sheer variety. Despite the particular commonality between the artists featured—they are all ‘sonic artists’—no two works are alike. Just as sound art itself is hard to classify, the artworks in “Soundings”, too, lie on a broad spectrum ranging from composed music to installation, from performance to Conceptual art.
Some, for instance, don't involve sound at all, but merely reflect on sound, conveying it visually. For example, in the touching series Scores and Transcripts (2012), artist Christine Sun Kim (American, b. 1980), who was born deaf, uses elegant gestural drawings to represent communication as she experiences it—a combination of American Sign Language, musical notation, spoken English and body language.
Other works only involve sound and have no visual component. Susan Philipsz’s (Scottish, b. 1965) Study for Strings (2012), a melancholic yet moving note-by-note deconstruction of a 1943 orchestral work, is merely presented through a set of speakers in an otherwise empty gallery. Pavel Haas composed the score that serves as the basis for Phillipz’s contemporary piece for 24 instruments while he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Phillipz’s version of the work leaves out all but two of these 24 instruments, inserting into the piece a sobering silence that reminds us of the musicians who did not survive the war.
Others, still, fall somewhere in between—they either incorporate both the visual and the audible, or turn the mechanism for the auditory experience (whether a record player, a radio or, even, wind), into the work’s visual component. Ridges on the Horizontal Plane by Luke Fowler (Scottish, b. 1978) and Toshiya Tsunoda (Japanese, b. 1964), for example, literally fuses both sound and image. In this installation, standing fans blow air at a fabric screen to make it billow; a slideshow of landscapes are projected onto the screen and are distorted by the blowing air; piano strings, which are pulled across the screen, make noise when the screen blows up against them.
Sound as a medium for art first emerged in the 1960s, rising out of trends in modern art that had developed over the fifty years prior. Today, sound art continues to gain traction among artists; as an artistic category, sound art still lacks clear definition, and in this, artists see lots of potential for continued exploration.
What is clear is that sound art is grounded in culture: the works in “Soundings” look to science, politics, memory, literature and more. As with other art forms, not only does sound art present itself in different ways, but also the artists behind it employ their medium to advance myriad perspectives and objectives.
In spite of the diversity of artworks, “Soundings” was singular in its theme: in the context of an individualistic world where we are never without headphones, smartphones, and mp3 players, “Soundings” champions the pleasure derived from the communal experience of sound. And really, communal experiences are what museums are all about.