Looking out for the sound of art

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

In Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne,” the riotous clash of cymbals and blowing of trumpets in the hands of the revelers can almost be heard. In similar ways, artists from at least the Renaissance onward, have attempted to suggest the presence of music in their paintings. By the modern period, many artists had abandoned representational styles altogether and were beginning to consider the language of painting as akin to music, a development that gave us the dynamic and wholly abstract compositions of Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and other pioneers.

Their work was contemporary with research into synesthesia: a neurological condition in which some people have the ability to hear colors or to see sounds. While the phenomenon failed to gain acceptance as a hard science, the links between our different senses, in a more general way, continues to be explored by many artists and musicians.

Works related to this theme have been brought together at “Tokyo Art Meeting (III): Art and Music — Search for New Synesthesia,” the current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. For the exhibition, an essential third element, not reflected in the title but underpinning the exhibition’s concept, is the natural world and its processes that inform both our visual and aural senses.

For the first piece in the show, an installation by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot, a gentle stream of water ripples out into a large blue pool and gently circulates a flotilla of white ceramic bowls. A total sensory experience is achieved through the marrying of a calming visual design with the chimes of the bowls periodically striking against each other. By determining the flow and direction of the bowls, it is the water’s movement that determines the musical rhythm of the piece, and it is the notion of waves that also provides the exhibition with one of its key images.

Berlin-based Carsten Nicolai drips droplets of water into a tank and illuminates and projects the shifting patterns made by the ripples on the water’s surface onto a screen. In another piece, he works with sound waves, subjecting samples of milk to frequencies between 10 to 150 Hertz, (bordering on where humans can no longer hear but can still physically feel the frequencies) and photographs the visual patterns created by the vibrations in the milk. We are left with not only a visual presentation of a soundwave but — considering the wave would need to be moving to be heard — a suspended, or frozen, slice of a potential sound.

The circle is another visual symbol that artists featured at the exhibition appear to be inspired by. For “Years,” Bartholomaus Traubeck fashions a slice of tree trunk into the form of a vinyl record, with the tree-trunk’s rings resembling the spiral groove of the now-outdated audio format.

Using a record player with a special sensor, computer software is used to translate the trunk rings into notes and then “play” them as melodies. While the rings of a tree are a visual testament to time passing, Japanese artist Lyota Yagi demonstrates how the rings of a record cast in ice has only minutes of life. As it melts while being played, the impermanence is manifest through the deterioration of the sound from the beginning of the record to its end.

Acting as general advisor for the exhibition is Ryuichi Sakamoto, who, since his work with electro-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), has gone on to compose soundtracks, create art installations, write an opera and become involved in environmental activities, including campaigns against nuclear power. One of his professed desires, which he expressed after the 3/11 disasters, is for people to develop a different relationship with nature, something this exhibition can be seen to relate to, not least with its inclusion of the work of musician and artist John Cage, who once wrote that music is not only ecological but is ecology.

Manon De Boer’s video piece “Two Times 4’33″ “(2008) depicts two performances of Cage’s notorious “silent” music 4’33″ — considered either revolutionary or a complete scandal. In the first performance, the camera focuses on the pianist as he turns the pages of the score, coughs and plays not a single note. The soundtrack draws our attention to the ambience of the setting and the rain falling outside the auditorium.

Not all of the works in the exhibition are equally successful but “Art & Music — Search for New Synesthesia” draws to an end on a high with the buzz and scratch emitted by a forest of portable record players in Otomo Yoshihide and Yasutomo Aoyama’s “without records,” and Ryoji Ikeda’s “data.matrix [n°1-10],” comprising a bank of screens showing ever-changing digital visualizations of the hidden sea of data that permeates our everyday electronic lives.

“Tokyo Art Meeting (III): Art and Music — Search for New Synesthesia” at the Musuem of Contemporary Art, Tokyo” runs till Feb. 3; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon., Jan. 15 (open Jan. 14). www.mot-art-museum.jp.