Words by Lesley Van deMark
…If you listen you can hear it. The sound of nothing and the sound of everything; dissected, amplified and simplified into a unique personal listening experience…
Listening, an exhibition currently on show at the Bluecoat curated by Sam Belinfante, explores the very personal experience of listening. We are curious creatures by nature, always searching for clues that lie outside the realm of what is visible to the human eye. The exhibition allows our imagination to draw on our past experiences through sound, as well as fabricate a variety of new experiences with a dialogue of our choice.
I found the repetitive chanting of the Greek mythological sirens in Ragnar Kjartansson’s Song to be an interesting choice as the first work that visitors encounter as they enter the exhibition space. It is easy to become lulled into a state of sleep by the sweet singing voices, but the next sound that one might hear may well be that of the caretaker, informing you that the exhibition has now closed for the night.
Next, the coloured drinking glasses affixed to an expanse of white wall were particularly inviting to me. Simply called Eavesdropping, the work suggests you do just that; place your ear against one of the glasses and try to listen to the muffled conversations in the next gallery. It seemed unanimous when I asked people in the gallery space what attracted them to the wall – apart from the bright colours, it was the familiar memory of, as a child, listening at their parents’ bedroom door.
Meanwhile, a more disturbing but effective attempt at eavesdropping is Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Cabin Fever. Peering into a large wooden box, the viewer finds themselves looking through trees in a dark wood. There is the sound of a vehicle pulling up to an isolated cabin and the unmistakable crunch of snow under foot. The viewer is privy to an almost inaudible argument between a man and woman, and even the raised voices and the sound of breaking dishes within the cabin does not prepare us for what happens next. The viewer is left to imagine the eerie chain of events that might follow.
Listening is like an adventure in wonderland; surreal and at times disjointed from exhibit to exhibit, which somehow enhanced the overall experience. The Whisper Heard, the work of the Liverpool-based Imogen Stidworthy felt similar to disappearing down a rabbit hole, with the voice of a young child in the background calling out. I then crawled into an anechoic chamber for a moment of quiet reflection. Some say that remaining in one of these chambers for an extended amount of time can be hazardous to one’s mental health (the chamber is without echo and somewhat eerie). Personally, I found crawling under the large geometric dome on the cement floor more of a hazard to my physical well- being, but well worth the wear and tear on my bad knee.
Next, Max Neuhaus’ photographic series Water Whistle recounts a fascinating experiment with two people floating in a pool, ears submerged. This allows them to hear music being conducted through the water but the music is not audible to those on the surface. It reminded me vividly of a time when I floated leisurely, ear-deep in a bath tub at the Park Plaza in New York City. Through the warm bath water I was the only one who could clearly hear the activities of the couple in the next bedroom.
But sound alone is not always enough to satisfy the senses. Some of the exhibits, such as Seawomen rely on sight as well to enhance the experience. The mere sound of an ocean bound tug, the rhythmic slapping of the water on its bow and the chatter of the Japanese women on board is not enough to convey the beauty of this short film. For me, the physical experience of viewing while sitting cross legged on cushions on the straw matting and the visual experience of watching these older women clad in wetsuits free diving (without oxygen tanks) into the ocean depths for octopus and shell fish, completed the overall experience.
Listening at the Bluecoat is certainly well worth the visit. Allow yourself plenty of time to wander aimlessly, lose yourself in its dark spaces and find yourself through the gift of sound.