Art

An Exhibition Turns a Tibetan Art Museum into a Musical Instrument

The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum asks visitors to listen to Tibetan Buddhist art with their whole body.

Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, the entire building is treated as an instrument. An installation on the central spiral staircase called “Le Corps Sonore (Sound Body)” features work by sound artists Éliane Radigue, Laetitia Sonami, and Bob Bielecki, and what visitors hear changes as they ascend and descend. “This was the first piece that I selected for the show,” Risha Lee, curator of The World Is Sound, told Hyperallergic. “Its principles guided much of my subsequent thinking, including weaving the exhibition throughout the museum, which highlights the fact that all of these spaces are already resonant.”

Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The resonant bowl at the base of the “Le Corps Sonore (Sound Body)” staircase sound installation (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The World Is Sound asks visitors to engage not just with the building in unexpected interactions, but with diverse ways of listening, whether surrounded by the crowdsourced “OM” of thousands of voices, or reclining like a corpse while concentrating on a recitation of Tibetan funerary texts.

“The art in our collection is primarily related to the living traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, which activate all the senses in ritual practice,” Lee said. “By contrast, the world at large often places excessive emphasis on the visual over any other sensory experience.”

There are visuals in The World Is Sound, but they are more contextual than the focus, such as an arc-shaped case of instruments that activate music when people are close (including a sonorous trumpet made from a human leg bone, recalling the impermanence of the body), or Buddhist devotional objects that, when approached, trigger associated mantras and chants, some recorded at monasteries in Nepal and India.

The sound design, overseen by John Monaco, is impressive at isolating these moments, and creating a connective drone that draws people through the exhibition. It’s centered at the top of the building, in a cyclical display that travels from creation to death to rebirth, yet the show flows throughout the whole museum architecture.

Indeed, nearly every corner of the Rubin is involved in The World Is Sound, from the elevator to the entryway. At the base of the curling staircase for “Le Corps Sonore” is a reflective resonant bowl, helping to reverberate the compositions upwards, so each step is like moving into another stage. It was the artists who had the idea of installing the piece in the staircase, following two previous versions — one in 1998 at Mills College and 2015 at Fondation Cartier — that were horizontal.

“Laetitia Sonami and I sent Eliane Radigue a video of the space and immediately she was attracted to the staircase as the literal and metaphorical spine of the building and the piece,” Lee said. “Sometimes the artists referred to the staircase as their score. In a conversation with me earlier this year, Radigue likened the desired experience of the piece to being inside of a conch shell.”

While some of the work is more loosely linked to Tibetan Buddhism, other moments are directly connected, including areas that ask you to “touch to listen” to a mantra humming from the surface. A related sacred object, such as a 16th-century cosmic mandala, is positioned, slightly hidden, between two walls, encouraging you to lean in to hear and see at once. “In The World Is Sound we deemphasize the visual as the primary sense, and in so doing shift attention from the formal qualities of objects to the myriad relationships that might frame our experiences of them,” Lee explained.

The exhibition further reframes misconceptions of sound in Tibetan Buddhism. Many might associate the noise “OM” to meditation or prayer, but the Rubin positions it as a deeper, elemental noise rooting us in the very creation of the universe.

In one room, benches are available to sit and hear the collective OM of this sacred syllable (embedded above), voiced earlier this year by more than 10,000 museum visitors through the OM Lab. As with all of the stages of The World Is Sound, whether climbing the soundtracked stairs, or finding a solitary moment with a 19th-century painting paired with tonal mantras, it’s an interaction of the whole body. And listening deeply through ears, mind, and physical place in the museum helps connect visitors to even the most unfamiliar aural experiences. Like the Rubin’s 2014 exhibition on Tibetan Medicine, or last year’s Soundwalk Collective installation that featured soundscapes of the wind in the Himalayas, The World Is Sound offers another dimension to Buddhist art.

“Through juxtaposing historical and contemporary art and adopting a conceptual approach, The World Is Sound erodes the false binaries of ‘East and West’ and challenges the concepts underlying these reductive categories,” Lee stated. “Maybe the show even challenges the distinction between ‘sacred and secular.’ I think it’s clear that there are many connections across all of these categories.”

Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum of Art, with a visitor listening to funerary texts (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Sculpture of Mahakala, a wrathful Buddhist protector deity, who is accompanied by music that is an offering to please him (Tibet, 15th century), gilt copper alloy with semiprecious stones (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The World Is Sound (courtesy Rubin Museum of Art)
Pair of cymbals (bub chel) (Mongolia, 18th-19th century), metal alloy, silk (courtesy Rubin Museum of Art)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Leg bone trumpet (kang ling), an object traditionally made from human leg bones retrieved from “sky burials,” and a symbol of impermanence (Tibet, 18th century), human leg bone, copper, and coral (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The World Is Sound (courtesy Rubin Museum of Art)
Milarepa (Central Tibet, 15th-16th century), parcel gilt silver with gilt bronze base (courtesy Rubin Museum of Art)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ritual text with musical notation (Tibet, possibly late 19th century), ink and pigments on paper (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Stone sculpture of the female guru Machik Labdron, holding a damaru and bell, two instruments used in Chod ceremonies (Tibet, 16th-17th century) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ceremonial conch trumpet (dung kar) (Tibet, 19th century), conch shell and metal with gilding (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of <em>The World Is Sound</em> at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The World Is Sound continues through January 8, 2018 at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).

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