Anja Ulfeldt Makes Art From the Unappealing Sounds of Aging Plumbing

"Domestic Infrastructure #3," 'Anja Ulfeldt: Of Sound | Mind and Objects (2016)', Museum of Craft and Design (Photo: Courtesy of Dallis Willard)

Anja Ulfeldt makes visible what most of us choose to ignore.

Oakland neighborhoods, like the one the artist lives in, are comprised of aging houses and apartment buildings. The large plumbing pipes that hang from the sides of them routinely go unnoticed. You think, “All that rust and gunk: What an eyesore!” if you think of them at all. And the background noise of running water — from the toilet flush to the bathtub draining — is usually a mild annoyance and not a pleasure to hear.

The antique hand pump for Domestic Infrastructure #3
The antique hand pump for "Domestic Infrastructure #3" (Photo: Courtesy of Dallis Willard)

Of Sound l Mind and Objects, Ulfeldt’s new exhibition at San Francisco's Museum of Craft and Design, is out to prove otherwise. The artist had a lucky run at a local salvage yard and found similar sized pipes from demolished buildings. At the museum, she has mounted an entire gallery wall with these enormous pipes, sealing them together and filling them with water. Against the high, white wall, the eye-catching installation Domestic Infrastructure #3 resembles a metallic alphabet, letters in an alien tongue.

But apart from its visual impact, Ulfeldt has made what she calls “a performable object" -- an interactive piece that yields more meaning from active engagement than from a passive gallery stroll. The point is to elicit a response in the participant through the use of sound and physical motion.

The pipes are fitted externally with microphones and internally with hydrophones. Speakers amplify the sound of water moving up and down and around the structure. There are two ways to activate all that gurgling and burbling. You can simply walk up close and the water slowly begins to travel. Alternatively, you move an antique hand pump back and forth until the water begins to vigorously rise.

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What results is a dripping, sodden concerto of your own making. The sounds recall the music generated by the Wave Organ, that beloved sound art installation on the waterfront near San Francisco's Marina. It's soothing and discordant, an unorthodox rhythm bubbling up from the sea’s melancholy.

Anja Ulfeldt at The Museum of Craft and Design
Anja Ulfeldt at The Museum of Craft and Design (Photo: Courtesy of Dallis Willard)

The explanatory signage hanging in the gallery states : “The installation draws parallels between external infrastructures in the built environment and the circulatory and digestive systems of the human body.”

But in listening to Ulfeldt talk about her process as she constructed Domestic Infrastructure #3, it’s the industry of her endeavor that’s compelling -- more so than the theory behind it. The artist placed the pipes on the ground below her studio in an arrangement made from her initial sketches. Then, she walked upstairs to a higher floor, looking down to see what to adjust, before heading back downstairs to fix it.

With this work, Ulfeldt is sending a message to us and the planet. You can hear it when a hand cranks the pump, forcing the water to rise up against gravity, until all that water music recedes and fades into a silence.

Anja Ulfeldt: Of Sound l Mind and Objects will be on show through Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017 at The Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco. 

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