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LONDON — It is almost impossible not to notice the recent flourishing of sound installations in the British art world. Artworks featuring sound and music are now appearing in almost every museum and cultural space across London, a trend that indicates a broadening general interest in the intermixing of sound and contemporary art. Sound works have never been so popular, and not only in London: this year’s Venice Biennale presented quite a few pieces of this nature (which is telling if you believe that visiting that Italian institution is still a reliable way of understanding what’s going on in the art world).
Responding to this increased interest in sound and contemporary music, Whitechapel Gallery, in collaboration with the never-disappointing Vinyl Factory, is now presenting Music for Museums. The program of live events explores the intersection of visual art and experimental music, from compositions of the faintest possible sounds emitted by instruments and human bodies, to music derived from mathematical systems, to works featuring the feedback of electric guitars.
These live music events have roots in the 1960s, when museums and galleries became sites of experimentation in sound. That was the time of Fluxus performances in New York and in Germany, when artists such as Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys would meet with Nam June Paik and George Maciunas to organize concerts.
Suitably, the first event in the Music for Museums series featured the London-based experimental music ensemble Apartment House performing a series of key scores by influential artists/composers and Fluxus members, such as John Cage, Maciunas, and Paik. The program, conceived in association with curator Tom Trevor, also recently featured cyclo., the creative collaboration between sound and visual artists Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda.
Since Nicolai and Ikeda began their collaboration in 1999, the duo has focused on a shared interest in the visualization of sound, such as the beauty of the renditions in the Lissajous figures. Nicolai and Ikeda started by experimenting with unusual sounds, such as white noise, and researching the resulting geometric figures. This research on the relationship between sounds and visuals brought the artists to archive the images created by their experimental sounds, collecting them in the publication and CD cyclo. id in 2011.
In amassing this archive, Nicolai and Ikeda developed a singular approach wherein sound is often subverted by the desire to look at beautiful images. When the artists discovered a range of appealing Lissajous figures that were coming from sounds so harsh they were almost impossible to bear, instead of abandoning or ignoring them, they incorporated some in their compositions, in order to keep the images they liked.
The performance at Whitechapel was perfectly in line with cyclo.’s original purpose. Extremely elegant in their rigorous black-and-white aesthetic, the geometrical images projected on the screen at the back of Nicolai and Ikeda’s consoles were spectacular. According to the gallery, tickets were sold out well ahead of the performance — the clearest sign of a wide interest in cyclo.’s practice.
Nicolai and Ikeda are not new to London. In August 2014, as part of the centennial commemoration of the beginning of World War II, Ikeda dramatically illuminated the city’s night sky with his piece “spectra”: a straight beam of light formed by 49 searchlights, which was visible for seven nights across the capital.
The two artists also had critically acclaimed solo shows at the Vinyl Factory’s downtown space Brewer Street Car Park this year, which made them known outside their circles as well. Ikeda’s combination of minimal sounds and computer graphics were at the heart of supersymmetry, an exhibition exploring mathematics, quantum mechanics, and logic, drawing on his recent residency at Centre For Nuclear Research (CERN). The basis of Ikeda’s work was the theoretical mathematical model called “supersymmetry,” which CERN is currently testing, and which should help explain why particles have mass.
Nicolai, who plays under the stage name Alva Noto when collaborating with the living legend of Japanese music Ryuichi Sakamoto, recently exhibited unicolour, which was reminiscent of his previous studies in landscape design. For that show, the German artist designed a system that bridged audio and visuals, creating fascinating images based on color theory.
By featuring cyclo., Whitechapel’s already impressive program benefited greatly. Ikeda and Nicolai deserve a great deal of attention, and their performance at the gallery helped the public realize it.
Music for Museums continues at Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High St, London) through November 29.
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