Every place has its sound character, and in Upper Mustang in northern Nepal, one of the most cacophonous forces is the wind. Rippling prayer flags on the Himalayan mountain passes, and the air current’s sweep through the valley below, are interspersed on the field recordings made by Soundwalk Collective during their visits to the region earlier this year. In Sacred Spaces: Himalayan Wind at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, visitors are immersed in a sound environment orchestrated from these recordings.
When the Rubin Museum opened their newly expanded Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room last fall, the two gallery spaces alongside were dedicated to a Sacred Spaces program to explore the idea of devotion and its settings. The first two installations were very visual, with a panoramic photograph of mountains in Mustang by Jaroslav Poncar, and a diptych video by Deidi von Schaewen, showing a colossal statue in Shravanabelagola, India, being drenched in orange turmeric powder and white milk.
Himalayan Wind is less centered on the topography or icons of Buddhism, and more about accumulating the sound of spiritual sites into a kind of sonic shrine. Soundwalk Collective includes Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli, and Kamran Sadeghi, who often act as aural anthropologists, such a for their Jungle-ized project that you can currently experience around Times Square, which features their field recordings from the Amazon rainforest. For the Rubin Museum, they collaborated with sound artist Francisco López to amass 120 hours of wind sounds in over 200 villages and monasteries for their Khandroma record. It’s named for “the one who traverses the sky” in Tibetan Buddhism, and is the audio foundation for this site-specific installation.
The Mustang monasteries are among the highest sacred places in the world, their low chants sometimes emerging in Khandroma from the fluttering noise. Located where the mountains peak into the clouds, the monasteries are adorned with incredible frescoes and weathered prayer wheels, both of which Crasneanscki recorded with a camera equipped with a kaleidoscope. The DIY device fractured the monastery images into rotations of jittery color and text, which play their meditative repetitions on two screens in one of the galleries.
However, aside from those visuals, the installation is more futuristic than gompa. In one room, you can recline on a white beanbag-like chair, or roam the speakers set up against walls spiked with white-foam wedges, two tall totems of speakers at either end completing the dimensional sensation of the space. In the other gallery, you can sit on a chair and listen to Khandroma through headphones, the tracks for which are selectable from nearby turntable stations. Each is a solitary engagement that culminates at the Shrine Room itself, where people sit together in silence on a long bench facing the quiet assemblage of butter lamps and historic ritual objects. After the strange rhythm of the kaleidoscopic video and the white listening room, its gold and red colors feel richer, and are accented by the surrounding experience of the texture of Himalayan sound.
Sacred Spaces: Himalayan Wind continues through June 5, 2017 at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).