A carefully random scattering of chairs filled ISSUE Project Room’s Beaux-Arts theater last Friday night. With the ability to sit facing any direction, choosing the optimal seat felt crucial, though there was no indication as to which way was best. The sole light source, a blue spotlight illuminating the chandelier, cast the room in a cerulean haze. Sitting down at a small table with only a laptop and sound mixer, artist Jacob Kirkegaard gave a brief preface to his sound work “ISFALD” (Icefall), which was commissioned by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark for the 2013 group exhibition Arctic, explaining how he made the recordings by submerging an underwater microphone in Greenland’s melting glaciers. The shape of the chandelier and the aqueous glow of the room seemed a visual echo of Kirkegaard’s microphone dangling below the surface of the ice, transporting the audience to the submarine environment where the sounds originated.
“ISFALD” begins with a thunderous roar. The tone reverberated throughout the space, then decayed into otherworldly crackles, like mechanical crickets. The sounds in the piece exist in a suspended state between the familiar and the bizarre. While the recordings were taken of naturally occurring events, Kirkegaard’s amplification and decontextualization turn them into a kind of extraterrestrial symphony. Decidedly non-melodic, the progression lulls listeners into a trancelike semi-awareness. Because there’s no way to track the passage of time, your mind wanders and gets lost momentarily, only to be violently brought back to alertness by the periodic sonic booms.
As “ISFALD” continues, Kirkegaard layers on recordings made above the water and in the nearby town: the faint bustling of cars and footsteps, a dog barking nervously, its sharp yelps elongating into anxious whines, the surreal moans of ice aggressively crushing against ice. Escalating to a degree of abstraction beyond his other sound works, which feature visual counterparts, “ISFALD” complicates the familiar reception of recorded sound through its total lack of narrative structure. The works function like a still life in the fourth dimension: pure description in time.
Instead of reducing that dimension, however, sound has the unique capability of maintaining its original intangibility. Because of sound’s lack of perceived physicality, space neither expands nor contracts, as with other media transitioning between two and three dimensions. When artists make paintings, photographs, or sculptures, they usually transform their subjects from items or events existing in time to atemporal two- or three-dimensional objects. These types of artworks may be extremely lifelike, but they will never truly be mistaken for their real-world referents. Sound, in both its original and reproduced forms, exists as a nonmaterial and durational phenomenon; the audience could perceive Kirkegaard’s work as if we were hearing the recordings in real life. That auditory paradox allowed us to have an experience of both realism and obfuscation. Sitting in almost complete darkness, we were equally below the ice, above the ice, in the street, near a dog, all at once.
Jacob Kirkegaard’s “ISFALD” took place at ISSUE Project Room (22 Boerum Place, Downtown Brooklyn) on May 2, 8pm.