Art

The Rubin Museum Becomes a Soothing Soundscape

Slip into The World Is Sound, close your eyes, and leave the jangled world outside for awhile.

A man listening to death chants (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The world is a pretty jangly and disturbing place these days. The cacophony of New York City, the constant buzz of political shenanigans, and the roar of dissent across the planet makes daily life rather jarring. So slip into the Rubin Museum for an aural cleansing. Curator Risha Lee’s The World Is Sound will delight your ears and give your brain a rest.

The show, in essence, turns the entire museum into a soundscape. Everything resonates. Step out of the first-floor bathroom and the hallway chants to you. The elevator has its own soundtrack. Walk up the beautiful curved stairway (a relic from when Barney’s department store inhabited the space), and “Le Corps Sonore” (2017), a site-specific installation by Eliane Radigue, Laetitia Sonami, and Bob Bielcki, accompanies you, designed to interact with your movements. Chanting, electronic, and organic sounds merge to form an enveloping contemporary symphony. It’s lovely.

“Le Corps Sonore” (2017), viewed from above
Gallery devoted to the “deep listening” meditation technique of Pauline Oliveros

The immersive concept of this exhibition is cool, surprising, and uses the architecture of the building in a unique and moving way. Many of the sound pieces, whether commissioned by the museum, crowd-generated, or on loan from contemporary composers, are highly compelling. A collection of contemporary sound artworks, curated by C. Spencer Yeh, has some truly transcendental works in it. I particularly loved “Suspension” by Samita Sinha, which combines the sounds of the Hindi alphabet with the structure of Indian classical music.

The exhibition also, shall we say, resonates with visitors. Take the Om Lab, a listening room with a soundtrack made from thousands of museum visitors recording the word “om” (a basic element of Buddhist chant meditation) over several months. Those recordings were mixed to form a multilayered sound environment, where visitors can choose to join in and chant or just let the sound wash over them. The sight of a dozen people lost in sound there is wonderful to behold.

People listening in the Om Lab

Next to the Om Lab is a video made in conjunction with the Museum of Natural History that portrays the beginning of the universe in all its psychedelic glory. “Resonant Universe” (2017) progresses from this grand universal imagery to that of monks involved in Buddhist ritual, linking Buddhist practice to the larger picture of our planet’s evolution. It provides a glorious splash of color in an otherwise visually muted show.

Still from the video “Resonant Universe” (2017), produced in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History

In fact, despite its many auditory delights, the exhibition disappoints visually. The main floor is a maze of gray-white walls that steer visitors awkwardly, in no coherent path. Per the museum’s press release, the exhibition is “organized in a life cycle — from creation to rebirth.” But after making my way through the show twice, I had no sense that this was the underlying concept. In fact, the various sound installations, though individually beautiful to listen to, conveyed little connection to one other.

“Touch to Listen,” installation view

It’s perplexing that many of the objects the curators displayed in conjunction with the sound experiences are half hidden or seem quite secondary to the aural works. There are a series of smaller installations supertitled “Touch to Listen” that use sophisticated sound technology: Visitors place a hand upon the wall to trigger recordings of Buddhist chants, commissioned by the museum to demonstrate the living and vibrant state of contemporary Buddhist practice. But the accompanying objects are installed in a sunken niche that one needs to peer into. I would have preferred to experience the connection between the sight and sound of Buddhist ritual without having to work quite so hard.

Well-known speaker company Harman Inc. provides the sound technology throughout the exhibition, and many of the listening areas are dominated by giant matte black speakers set into the walls, which, visually, is rather austere. This is surprising in a museum where the installations typically provide visual delight, eschewing the standard blank white walls and opting instead to install their shows in rooms that pulse with color. The decision to so starkly separate sound from sight seems odd for this institution and at odds with the attempt to portray a “Buddhist experience” as all-encompassing.

Installation of Mahakala, Legden, “Excellent One” (15th century) surrounded by audio cushioning and speakers

Although the exhibition succeeds in delighting the ear far more than the eye, it is well worth experiencing. I admire the Rubin and Risha Lee for so completely stepping out of the typical museum model for this show. The feeling that the entire building is vibrating with sound activates the space in a way I had never experienced before. So slip into the Om Lab, close your eyes, and leave the jangled world outside. When you’re ready, float back out onto 17th St., and even New York City may seem a little more peaceful.

Installation of Himalayan musical instruments

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

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