An unexpected trait of sound art is a love of silence as much as noise. On show at South London Gallery‘s At The Moment of Being Heard, pioneers such as Baudouin Oosterlynck, crys cole and Eli Keszler present works that have us perch our ear down close to the floor or caught unawares, as a piano wire triggers off amplifiers and a vacuous hush erupts. Somehow the discipline has always had an aura of being difficult, even inaccessible. Yet here, sonorous works are direct, at times even warm.
It’s not hard to see sensitivity to nature in many of these artists’ work. The characters behind the field recordings often plying their trade in places beyond the pale of the city walls, in much the same way that Impressionists brought their canvasses to life in fresh country air. ‘Variations of Silence’ (1990-1991) by Oosterlynck has the tone of an avant-garde piece but nevertheless appears aesthetically close to the work of a child. Its use of crayon colours, on ripped pieces of paper, coupled with fantastical figures in abstract sketch-like form at first seems simply bizarre, especially due to two raised relief maps centred on the tables. It gradually becomes clear, though, that these silences have been mapped out with small flags in varying places, the result being that sketches on all sides of the room describe every variation of bliss with a mix of facts, anecdotes and humour.
With and without a physical presence ‘filling a space with salt (in two parts)’ (2013), by the Canadian cole, also gently illustrates how an understated recording need not be any less powerful. Made up of fallen crystals, the piece emerges from a vent on one side of the gallery, as a triangular mountain of powder fills a void and creates a soft white peak. The process of its creation plays out over 108 minutes, under a grill at the opposite corner of the main room, cleverly sifting notions of materiality, sculpture and elemental force without any bitter hint of academia.
One element of cole’s work relies on is the hidden technology behind its production and it’s a magic of sorts that multi-instrumentalist Keszler wholeheartedly rejects in ‘NEUM’ (2013). A construction, built of long piano wire, criss-crosses to form a geometric star nailed up with pin blocks, micro controllers and DC Motors programmed to amplify the destruction of a solemn silence, as echoes from machine-activated notes scrape out a terse existence across the space.
Much of the vivacity of visual pieces, across gallery walls, comes from the curatorial synaesthesia dictated between media. Without it, photographs and inkjet printed dots often appear abstracted rather than absolute, while low frequency rhythms rein us in.
Header image: Baudouin Oosterlynck, ‘Aquaphone Cornemuse Opus143’ (2001). Photo © Leopold Oosterlynck