Fall 2012

Seeing Sound

By Hilary Knecht —

The contradictory title of the Tang Museum’s exhibition Hearing Pictures captivates by demonstrating how seemingly disparate ideas can harmonize. An open call to Skidmore musicians brought varied musical groups and individuals to respond to the exhibition on Thursday evening, September 27. Ordinarily, the show is open to interpretation with a microphone stand ready for viewers to record their reactions to a selected artwork. The exhibition features artworks spanning a range of moods and atmospheres. For example, Nicholas Monro’s Green Figures illustrates otherworldly forms screeching (archived visitor responses available on the Tang website), while W. Eugene Smith’s Recording Artist portrays a woman serenely playing the harp. The pictures are mounted on the wall like a musical composition—quiet, loud, louder, explosion of sounds, quieter, quiet, fade out…

This event brought the Accents, Pulse, guitarists, pianists, and saxophonists to publicly interpret any or all artworks in the show. The musicians improvised and responded instinctively to the artworks, creating an evocative performance. An added dimension: at times you could hear the sound art overflowing from the elevator music installment Doug Van Nort: Constellate. The unintentional (or possibly intentional) interaction of sounds heightened the experience of watching the performance. Although the exhibition is powerful on its own, the synergy of sound and sight produced a greater combined effect.

The only aspect that obviously connects the works is that they prompt sonic images in the viewers’ minds.  Otherwise, they range in style, time period, and media. As a whole, you “hear” the pictures like you might a song. Yet, you could also look at the pictures individually, as many of the musicians chose to do. You hear rushing water crashing against rocks in Walter Joseph Phillips’s tranquil Above Lake Louise; the arrangement reaches its crescendo in Heide Fasnacht’s Blast, the largest piece in the exhibition, depicting an explosion; Philip Guston’s The Street portrays the descent after the climax with metal pieces clanging as they fall; Smith’s subdued New Mexico indicates the waning composition with a lady peacefully sitting next to three flickering candles.

This unconventional way of looking at art adds a complexity to viewing and interpreting art; it might encourage viewers to view artwork in this way in future exhibitions. Maybe viewers will think of a song when they see an artwork unrelated to music, notice the arrangement of the artwork to imagine a score, or imagine an artwork the next time they play the guitar. The exhibition is an exploration in hearing and seeing—sound unites the artworks, even though you cannot actually hear anything.

Hearing Pictures is on display at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery until December 30, 2012.

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