Museums

Art at First Sound

by Jeremy Polacek on June 24, 2014

Ragnar Kjartansson, installation view, 'Me, My Mother, My Father, and I' at the New Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ragnar Kjartansson, installation view, ‘Me, My Mother, My Father, and I’ at the New Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Riding the elevator at the New Museum has become an alluring audio experience. Nearly every floor calls out with some unseen signature of sound, whether it’s the notes of a boozy, guitar-strumming party or white noise. Not all are siren songs, but in a welcome move, three of the New Museum’s recent exhibitions center on sound, turning the space into a piecemeal music box that explores the degree to which noises, voices, and music are able to transfigure and furnish the spaces they inhabit.

Ragnar Kjartansson’s show Me, My Mother, My Father, and I is the most overtly vocal and fun of the bunch. The installation is anchored by a ten-person polyphony played endlessly during museum hours: musicians lounging on chairs, couches, and bare mattresses strewn about a room that evokes a late-night college party (dim lamps and a refrigerator running low on beer complete the look), singing and playing, nonstop, a tune called “Take Me Here by the Dishwasher: Memorial for a Marriage.” Kjartan Sveinsson, a former member of the band Sigur Rós, composed the song’s soporific and wryly disingenuous score.

'Ragnar Kjartansson: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I' (photo by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York) (click to enlarge)

‘Ragnar Kjartansson: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I’ (photo by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York) (click to enlarge)

“This is it. Is this it? Yes, this is it. Do you think it can be fixed? Yes, I am afraid so,” they sing out together. Keep listening, and the lyrics unveil their waggish origins: “Are you a man? Show me what you can do to me! Take off my clothes! Take me, take me here by the dishwasher!” On a wall a gauzy scene of erotic fantasy is projected: a woman’s dream of seducing the plumber, which comes from Morðsaga (1977), Iceland’s first feature film — it just happens to feature Kjartansson’s mother and father as the dreamer and plumber. (A family joke has it that Ragnar was conceived on the night of that scene’s filming.) Sveinsson and Kjartansson have joined the dialogue from the scene with gossamer music, pulling the wool over our ears in the process.

This presentation — equal parts revelation and deception — gives “Take Me Here by the Dishwasher” a trickster, magic-like pleasure. Kjartansson is an artist interested in manipulating his audience; his art is in on the joke. At the same time, his manipulations are left largely unconcealed, bound up in his evocative, acute use of music. This results in a kind of buoyant cynicism — a self-reflexive, knowingly seductive piece that walks the line between artifice and sincerity. It fun to be fooled by Kjartansson.

'Hannah Sawtell: ACCUMULATOR' (photo by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York)

‘Hannah Sawtell: ACCUMULATOR’ (photo by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York)

Down on the ground level, Hannah Sawtell’s ACCUMULATOR (which closed June 22) contrasted Kjartansson’s alluring use of song with a wall of white noise. Pairing images plucked from the media with a droning, room-tone fuzz, the installation sought to represent the digital process of instant transmission and inevitable neglect, the way in which media and information are increasingly shared and lost. Unfortunately Sawtell didn’t do much to animate these elements beyond putting them neatly in the same room, and the show was too sleek to have much of a hook.

On the other hand, Roberto Cuoghi’s Šuillakku Corral almost suffers from having too many hooks and ideas; the work comes close to sounding like a cacophony instead of being cacophonous. An obsessive, totalizing artist, Cuoghi once strove to transform himself from a twentysomething (as he was when the project began, in 1998) into an old man, taking on a gray beard and gut. “Šuillakku – corral version” (2014, a short sample here) finds his obsession falling upon the Assyrian Empire, specifically that civilization circa 612–609 BCE. Cuoghi dedicated years to the study of Assyrian language, history, and music, and he created, collected, and learned to play nearly a hundred musical instruments — the work’s wall text counts over 70, including a lyre of Ur, African lute, anvil, gong, elephant whip, and badminton racket.

'Robert Cuoghi: Šuillakku Corral' (photo by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York)

‘Robert Cuoghi: Šuillakku Corral’ (photo by Benoit Pailley, courtesy New Museum, New York)

All of these pursuits come together in the clanging, crashing, blaring center of “Šuillakku – corral version,” which plays in a lightly lit circular chamber approached via a dark, narrow passageway that quickly disorients. Layering and mixing shouts, bangs, and music, Cuoghi conducts a shadow play of mystery, ritual, and connection — an invisible world moving all around, heard but not seen, listened to but not fully understood; a time portal to an incomprehensibly distant past. It could easily have devolved into a blare of competing noise, but Cuoghi’s sense of texture and environment guides the work. His tonal choices sculpt “Šuillakku – corral version” away from pure dissonance towards the outline of an inchoate but compelling narrative. Hearing is, after all, our fastest sense — the first messenger from the world outside and perhaps the most honest.

Hannah Sawtell: ACCUMULATOR was on view at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) from April 23 through June 22. Ragnar Kjartansson: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I and Roberto Cuoghi: Šuillakku Corral continue at the New Museum through June 29.

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