The convergence of art and sound and reference to total sensoriality, going against the present mutism of museums, instead characterised by the absolute supremacy of the visual element. This is the theme that Germano Celant, in the introductory essay in the catalogue, states he wishes to address with the exhibition “Art or Sound” that opened recently at the Fondazione Prada in Venice.
So, the museum not as an ascetic and mono-oriented place but as a territory for cross-contamination, the multi-sensory experience and “free transit”, “where seeing is added to listening, touching, smelling and tasting, so as to enrich knowledge of art via all the senses”.
“The question of the interaction between art and sound – continues Celant – is interwoven with the entire history of art from the 17th century up to the present day as an aspiration to investigate a sensory space or territory that did not fit into the Western tradition and its schematic coordinates. It marks the whole course of modernity and the development of synesthetic relationships between different expressive languages of communication, with the aim of finding another, unconventional order”. This was the motivation for the historic approach to the exhibition that sets it apart from numerous others dedicated to these themes in recent years.
The timespan is therefore broad. The exhibition fills the two frescoed floors of the magnificent Cà Corner della Regina, former headquarters of the ASAC – Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee for the Venice Biennale, now the Venetian residence of the Prada Foundation, restored as part of a programme of architectural rehabilitation begun by the Fondazione in 2011 and now for the first time with an exhibition space accessible on the upper floor.
The exhibition is a packed one, encyclopaedic overall. As explained in the guide, “the first piano nobile shows paintings of musical subjects from the Renaissance era, 17th century instruments made from precious materials and with unusual forms, along with intricate 18th century creations such as automata, clocks and cages for singing birds, as well as examples of musical boxes and automised devices from the 19th century. “Art or Sound” also presents synesthetic investigations that give visual form to music through light and colour, as with experiments carried out by the avant-garde over the course of history, from Futurism to Pop Art. Instruments and scores by musicians from the 1950s are on show, along with conceptual and kinetic works from the 1960s and 70s as well as works, instruments and sound installations that incorporate recording equipment, radio or television that interact with the visitor. On the second piano nobile, a display of investigations from the 1980s and 90s by artists who explored the confines between art and sound and more recent productions by visual artists, sound artists, performers and composers who make sculptures that can be played, digital devices, unusual and ambiguous synesthetic creations.
The exhibition begins with a number of Renaissance paintings with musical subjects, with a 16th century zither whose archaic lyre shape is inspired by classical antiquity, a baroque trumpet shaped like a serpent with a dragon's head, a guitar in inlaid white marble that was actually used in its time. Then there are clocks, organs, bass drums, musical machines and automata and a series of musical boxes and cages with automised birds that come out and sing on the hour. A carriage, built in the 18th century by the inventor and maker of Russian clocks Egor Kuznetzov for the Empress Katherine the Great II, that was equipped with an automatic organ that could be turned on to liven up the journey. Accordions, buccins and other instruments made from assorted materials and then the pyrophone, similar to an organ but with glass tubes that sound causes to light up with flames.
The exhibition continues with scores, sculptures, installations and readymades of all kinds. Over a hundred and eighty instruments are presented. Some evoke sounds or noises through their form; most of them actually produce it. Some emit it continuously and we find ourselves capturing it gradually as we move. Others go off unexpectedly, at alternate moments, surprising us before going quiet again as they wait again for their turn. Some require our intervention. Many live their own lives. Journeying around the exhibition we find the optophonic piano; if we consult the guide we discover that while resembling a pianoforte, the optophonic piano is a mechanical instrument made up of painted discs, prisms, lenses, mirrors and a light source. And that the author was Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, a Russian musician, painter and sculptor, member of the avant-garde and associate of the most forward-thinking artists of the times, Baranov-Rossiné began working in 1912 with the idea of creating luminous concerts. Following a series of avant-garde experiments he did so in 1916 in Sweden and then in 1924 in a more accomplished form at the Meyerhold theatre in Moscow.
The “coloured opto-visual concert” consisted of a series of moving images projected onto a screen to the rhythm of music played from records. On that occasion, the creator announced the transformation of music into a visual art. In 1944 Baranov-Rossiné died in a concentration camp and the instrument was destroyed (the copy now on show was made in 1971 and plays a recording of Peer Gynt by Grieg). It was just one of numerous ventures linked to the possibility of converting images into sounds or sounds into images. Another was that of Luigi Russolo with the Intonarumori: the Futurist machine patented in 1914 that played the sounds of the city and “modern” life. The Intonarumori is also on show, as are the functioning assemblages by Tinguely put together with pieces of radios with the tuning knob mounted on a scooter continually changing channel, creating incomprehensible sounds produced randomly. In addition we have the composition of industrial parts by Rauschenberg; the fantastic and disturbing piece, The Carnivore by Kienholz and the series of electric components by Alberto Tadiello as well as many other machines of varying degrees of complexity, each of which deserves a deeper look.
In parts, such a heterogenous overall generates a disorientating cacophony. In the midst of this proliferation of sounds, the many noises that gush, explode, flow and draw us in one direction or another it is easy to feel the need for a private corner.
Twice, Laurie Anderson comes to our aid, so adept at exploiting the potential of the voice to transform itself in intimate situations, to transport us, absorb us and isolate us. Her work offers us moments of rest, solitude and concentration: with the Handphone Table, for example, we sit at the head of a table placing our elbows on the table and our hands on our heads and then a song reaches us through the bones of the body and takes us "elsewhere". With Numbers Runners, a modified telephone box, thanks to the words that reach us through the earpiece, is transformed into a veritable microcosm. In both cases it is only afterwards, when we detach ourselves from the instrument, we realise that we have posed for an involuntary performance. In the overall ensemble it seems however that art and poetry struggle to flow.
For the most part though, we move between works and artefacts, amid sculptures that emit sounds and musical devices that seem to be sculptures; but are in a situation of contiguity and decontextualisation. The impression is one of finding oneself in an exquisite cabinet of curiosities, in which the protagonists, of equal merit, are heterogenous instruments of refined making, of surprising sound effect, of great sculptural efficiency. It is more difficult to grasp essential components such as the spatial effect, the conceptual implications, that fact that each object is part of a specific, highly-individual, explorative journey.
© all rights reserved
Until 3 November 2014
Art or Sound
Cà Corner della Regina