Shotgun Review

Silence

By Rob Marks April 22, 2013

John Cage might have imagined two ways of composing an art exhibition. One would have resembled his curatorial collaboration, Rolywholyover: A Circus, during which he and Julie Lazar allowed chance to operate within a system of constraints. The second would have recalled his iconic art-music piece, 4’33” (1952), during which the “noise” of ambient sound emerges as “music,” always there but hidden by our inattention to it. Cage, I believe, would not have compiled a thematic show, as a tribute to 4’33”, around the concept of silence. Having said that, Cage, famous for his curiosity, would have found much to redeem the product of a curatorial conceit like Silence, a collaboration of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and the Menil Collection.

It would be too high an expectation that all the works in Silence would reveal the museum’s ambient sound or images as music or art. The show nibbles around the edges, imagining silence in some works, finding literal, if inadequate, resonances of Cage in others. The show rises on the capacity of some pieces to creep into consciousness, like ambient sound: Robert Morris’s saw-sounding Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s bubbling-water-and-bird-song Mouth to Mouth (1975), Marcel Broodthaers’s singing/orating Speakers Corner (1972), and a Tino Sehgal performance piece. It falls when the concept of silence becomes all that connects a work to the show—for example, Christian Marclay’s paintings of the “Silence” sign from Andy Warhol’s electric-chair series and Bruce Nauman’s neon relief, Violins Violence Silence (1981–82).

It may be an unavoidable risk of thematic shows that a curator, in seeking to justify the theme by gathering enough examples, must risk the theme’s integrity by gathering too many. The juxtapositions in Silence seem gratuitous despite all the intention that went into their selection, while those in Cage’s Rolywholyover in 1993 seemed meaningful despite the large measure of non-intention that shaped the show.

Mark Manders. Reduced Summer Garden Night Scene (Reduced to 88%), 2011; sand, painted porcelain, iron, wood, and rope; 33-1/2 × 59-3/8 × 39-3/4 in. Courtesy of Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; © Mark Manders. Photo: Peter Cox.

Silence, nonetheless, has some wonderful moments, and little of the work seems pointless. Mark Manders’s Reduced Summer Garden Night Scene (Reduced to 88%) (2011)a Beckettian diorama of a black desert inhabited by a wire, a Walkman, a speaker, a metal stand, and a Coke bottle—enacts silence better than Marclay or Nauman, even as it sustains the possibility of sound. So does Two Times 4’33” (2008), a film by the Dutch artist Manon de Boer: the pianist Jean-Luc Fafchamps performs 4’33” twice, once with the camera pointed at him, the second time as it scans a small audience. I found myself first holding my breath to hear the wind-, birdsong-, breath-filled silence in the film, smiling at the incidents of more assertive ambient sounds from the museum’s atrium, even recognizing a cellphone tone as less an intrusion than an exemplar of the work. I felt I embodied a sudden capacity to simultaneously capture, to contain, all the sounds around me.

It turns out that it is the power of Cage’s idea—the ambient as central, not peripheral—that redeems the exhibition. It also suggests that one way, perhaps the best way, to approach Silence is through a sort of peripheral engaging—a seeing and hearing of things that are not the things I am looking at or listening to.

 

Silence is on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through April 28, 2013.

 

Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and its effect on self and society. Last fall, he won the Hannah Arendt Prize in Critical Theory and Creative Research for his essay, “The Site of Imaginative Contention.” He is a frequent contributor to DailyServing.

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