In a 1957 lecture entitled Experimental Music, artist John Cage posited that sound, be it cacophonic or melodic, is always with us. Further, he suggested that silence does not exist, as we are aware of the ambient noise that plays in the background of our daily lives. Cage's experimentation was intended, at least in part, to draw our attention to the information that our senses -- sight, smell, touch, and sound -- deliver through the most primal of means. When those sensate experiences are challenged, our perception is also questioned. For MATRIX 249, artist Zarouhie Abdalian presents objects that challenge us, with equal measure of playfulness and menace, to take stock of our perceptions and how we interpret the information they provide.
Installed in Gallery A on the museum's lower level, Abdalian's multifaceted practice is represented by a trio of objects that interact with each other, but only on the most minimal terms. First seen, first heard really, is the pervasive knocking emitted by the piece Each envelope as before. The object -- a rectangular vitrine, polished black and as enigmatic as the monoliths in Stanley Kubrick's 2001 -- stands nearly four feet off the ground. The reflective surface does not allow one to identify the inner workings of the piece, leaving us to reckon with its combined inertness and animation via sound. Up close, the sound quality is pristine. At times, you can hear the internal mechanisms activating to drive the hammers against the walls of the vitrine. By comparison, and without surprise, the knocking becomes more diffuse when heard at a distance. The passage of sound through the nearly empty space is unhindered, its only barriers being the gallery's dense concrete walls and any other bodies or objects present. Given enough time in the gallery, one becomes accustomed, maybe irritated, by the rhythmic beats. As I walked around, away from, and toward the vitrine, my mind made disparate lists of what makes a similar sound -- video games droning, clocks ticking, armies marching...
Zarouhie Abdalian, Each envelope as before, 2013.
Zarouhie Abdalian, As a demonstration, 2013.
As a demonstration, positioned opposite the vitrine, consists of a clear plexiglass chamber that houses an alarm bell. We see the miniature steel hammer strike the shiny brass bell and experience tells us that a sound should be released, but there is nothing for us to hear. The ringing is absorbed within the vacuum-sealed silence, effectively blasting Cage's assertion that silence is impossible. In other words, we see but do not hear, which is exactly the opposite experience of the companion object wherein we hear but do not see. I spent nearly ninety minutes in the gallery, and the longer I was there, the more obsessively I found myself looking at the bell to see if the hammer strike would align with the pervasive knocking. Twice was that desire fulfilled, yet the dissonance of what I saw and expected to hear was disorientingly complete.
Zarouhie Abdalian, Ad Libitum (If I Had a Hammer), 2013.
Ad Libitum (If I Had a Hammer), the third object on display, consists of bone, instrument wire, and a tuner, and resembles a single stringed instrument bolted to the wall. Understanding that Abdalian is concerned with sound, its absence, and how we perceive it, I approached the wall with the expectation that the wire would vibrate, activated by the sound coming from the vitrine. That expectation was dashed. Writing for the exhibition guide, curator Aspara DiQuinzio explains that the artist created and titled the piece with Pete Seeger's classic civil rights song If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song) in mind. Senator Joe McCarthy and those on the far right of American politics regarded the song (made popular by Seeger and his band The Weavers in 1949 and again by the group Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962) as inflammatory, fearing its potential impact as a call to action.
MATRIX 249 is supplemented by a new public artwork, one commissioned by SFMOMA after Abdalian was named the 2013 SECA award winner. The piece, sited around Frank Ogawa Plaza, will be activated at different times throughout the day from September 14 to November 17, 2013. The plaza was chosen for what it represents historically -- a place to meet and relax during a hectic workday -- and more recently ground zero of the Occupy Oakland movement. Abdalian was impressed by the location as a site of community gathering and action. The piece, which I have not yet experienced, includes five brass bells installed on rooftops of private and public buildings surrounding the square that will be rung at randomly determined times. Similar in effect to Each envelope as before, the bells will ring, but give us no visual referent with which to identify the sound. In the end, it may be more important to see how people within earshot of those bells respond, if they will question their senses or simply accept the sound as a minor note in the audible landscape.
Zarouhie Abdalian's installation at BAM and in Frank Ogawa Plaza combine to question the network of sounds, the spaces in which we experience them, and the reliability of the sensual perception in which we are so deeply enmeshed. Taken together, the in situ and site-specific installations encourage us to consider the aural elements that punctuate daily life, and what it means when our senses, our primary point of contact with the world, are challenged.
MATRIX 249 is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum until September 29, 2013. For more information, visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.
All photos: Sibila Savage; courtesy of the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco.