The Sound Art? exhibition delves into the questions posed almost twenty years ago by the percussionist and sound installation pioneer Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) in his eponymous article: Do all artistic practices involving the sound element constitute a single aesthetic category? Or is sound actually the matter and the medium used in a variety of artistic expressions in dialogue with one another? Curator Arnau Horta, who specializes in the analysis of sound and listening in contemporary artistic practices, investigates the presence of the sound element in twentieth-century visual arts to contribute to this debate on the subject of sound in art.
Throughout its five sections, the exhibition, sponsored in full by the BBVA Foundation, identifies the different ways in which sound is expressed in visual arts and offers a chronology of the sonorisation of the art object from the late nineteenth century until today. The show illustrates the progressive development of this sonorisation process: first implicitly, as an allegorical allusion to sound, and then explicitly, as an effective propagation of sound into the art object.
From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, sound phenomena became a constant source of inspiration and a tool that was broadly used by a large group of artists committed to renewing the practice of art. Eyes Listen, the first section of the exhibition, focuses primarily on the role of music as a determining factor in the transition from figuration to abstraction. Most of the titles of the works in this section refer to music, its codes and its terminology. Such is the case of Nocturne: Blue and Silver Chelsea (1871) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the diptych Prelude and Fugue (1908) by Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Rythmes colorés (1913) by Léopold Survage, Bock syncopé (Rythme heurté) (staccato)(1928-30) by Frantiek Kupka and Musique du crépuscule I and V (1965/1966) by Joan Miró, from the Fundaciós
collection. Sonia Delaunays vibrant painting Chanteurs de flamenco (Grand flamenco) (1915-16), also shown in this section, exemplifies how sounds can be seen and, conversely, colours can be heard.
In turn, from the mid-twentieth century on, the ongoing dialogue between sound and image drove many composers to seek inspiration in the visual arts in an attempt to break away from the constraints of musical notation and traditional composition methods. The second section of the exhibition, titled Music on Paper, examines how the music score became a space that opened up to experimentation and performativity for artists either directly or indirectly related to the Fluxus group, such as Earle Brown, Cathy Berberian, Dick Higgins, Channa Horwitz, Pablo Palazuelo, Katalin Ladik, Alvin Lucier and Rolf Julius. The latters work is featured throughout the show, with a selection of his pieces on display in its various sections and in different spaces within the museum. Coinciding with the eightieth anniversary of this German artists birth, Sound Art? highlights his output, which pioneered the use of sound in art by exploring the cusp between the realms of music, painting and sculpture.
Next, the exhibition continues in a third space titled Sound Bodies. Set out like a living room, this area gathers a series of works related to the body like the furniture in a home, proposing a sound experience which is not solely aimed at hearing (or seeing) but rather at the entire body as a listening space. When visitors lean their elbows on Laurie Andersons Handphone Table (1978), they will have a haptic perception of sounds that are only accessible through the vibration travelling up the arms to the hands. Next to this piece we find Michaela Meliáns Mannheim Chair (2015-16), a seat-shaped structure for immersive listening in which visitors can listen to a voice composition by the artist herself titled ESR, the acronym for the estrogen receptor gene. This composition is accompanied by a selection of drawings in which Melián turns this DNA sequence into a variety of visual music scores. To round off the third section, Nam June Paiks TV Experiment (Mixed Microphones) (1969-95) invites visitors to use their voices a sonorous extension of their bodies to generate abstract shapes on a TV screen. Voice is also central in Louise Lawlers Birdcalls (1972-81), installed outside the exhibitions itinerary, in the Fundaciós Olive Tree Patio. In a scheme that combines wit, humour and a critique of gender dynamics in the art world, Lawler lists the names of twenty-nine prominent male artists using different bird songs.
Silence, stated Joan Miró (1893-1983), is the denial of noise but the smallest noise in the middle of silence becomes enormous. That same process makes me look for the noise hidden in silence, the movement in immobility, life in inanimate things, the infinite in the finite, forms in a void, and myself in anonymity. The Secret Sounds of Silence, the fourth section in the exhibition, explores the conceptual aspects of silence as the never-entirely-opposite reverse of sound and investigates the role of both as tools in the process for dematerialising a work of art. This area includes pieces such as Marcel Duchamp's readymade À bruit secret (1916-64), the composition 433 (1952) by John Cage along with his collages Cadaqués 1 and 2 (1982), the installation The Sound of Ice Melting (1970) by Paul Kos, and pieces that refer directly to silence in their titles such as The Silence (Ingmar Bergman) (1973) by Joseph Beuys or Silence (1968) by Joan Miró.
The last section of the exhibition, which lends its title to the whole, raises a closing question for this journey through the gradual sonorisation of the art object. The pieces in this area are sculptures, installations and drawings produced over the past twelve years by artists from several generations and disciplines. Even though some of them do not produce anything audible, sound is at the core of their discourse. Among the works included in this section we find John Baldessaris first sculpture, Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear) Opus# (2007), musical drawings by composer and visual artist Chiyoko Szlavnics, and Carsten Nicolais sculpture Yes/No (2008) in which he casts, in aluminium, the wave shapes for these two words. Whether sound is a category, a medium or a message in the visual arts, for Arnau Horta the presence of sound (or simply the allusion to it through this title) allows the art object to state its presence, to stand out and be capable of saying in a radically different and augmented way. Whether we choose to qualify this object using one label or a different one is not as important as acknowledging and understanding the consequences of this by no means recent ability that a work of art has to sound, to resonate and to make itself heard also when it does so in an entirely silent way, filtering its sonority into our eyes, our thoughts or our skin.
A programme of specific activities aimed at all school levels, families and the general public is also being organized around Sound Art?, with events held inside and outside the Fundació in collaboration with other academic and cultural institutions. The publication for the exhibition includes a curatorial essay by Arnau Horta, the seminal text by Max Neuhaus titled Sound Art? and another key article on the subject by Suzanne Delehanty, the curator of the Soundings exhibition held in New York in 1981. The catalogue also gathers new contributions about the relationship between sound and art, including an essay on the influence of sound on the early avant-garde movements and the pioneers of abstraction, written by Jean Yves Bosseur; an article about the conceptual aspects of sound and silence by musician and writer David Toop; an interview with Maija Julius, daughter of the artist Rolf Julius, and Miki Yui, composer and an assistant to Julius; and a conversation with sound art curators and gallerists Ursula and René Block.
Arnau Horta (Barcelona, 1977) is a freelance curator, art critic, journalist, researcher and professor. Both as a curator and in his research and communication work, he focuses primarily on the analysis of the phenomenological and political dimensions of sound and listening in contemporary artistic practices.
Horta has not only worked with museums, festivals and arts centres throughout Europe, but also with a variety of media and educational institutions. He has carried out projects for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (MNCARS), the Museu dArt Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) and has contributed to projects at CaixaForum, CosmoCaixa, Filmoteca de Catalunya and La Casa Encendida, among other organizations. He also collaborates regularly with a variety of festivals, such as Sónar, LOOP Barcelona, Eufònic and Barcelona Pensa, and was responsible for the artist-in-residence program for the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam as part of the KLAS - Knowledge Link through Art and Science project.
He has also taught at the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED), the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), the Institut dHumanitats de Barcelona and the Escola Superior de Disseny (ESDi). Horta is a regular contributor to the culture sections for the newspapers La Vanguardia (Cultura/s) and El País (Babelia), where he writes about art, thought and contemporary culture.