PARIS — If you’ve ever wondered what the conceptualist Soho art scene looked and felt like in the early 1980s, there is a current Parisian show at Galerie Thomas Bernard that nails it — down to the look of the foot-worn discoloration and creaky groans of the gallery’s floor. Installed here in nonchalant fashion are the early, intimate, sound sculptures of Rolf Julius, a notable, minimalist, German sound-sculpture artist who passed away in 2011.
Through his timid, meditative work with instruments, noises, human voices, and various everyday sounds (such as water drops) Julius acquired international recognition as a pioneer in the field of audio art. He has been videotaped giving a fascinating performance in 1988 at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, where he modulates sounds by interrupting their solar power sources. Much influenced by the Fluxus-related sounds of Takehisa Kosugi — a co-founder, with Mieko Shiomi, of the famous, early-‘60s experimental noise music group Group Ongaku — Julius created a variety of meaningful and moving sound-vision works that explore for the attentive viewer-listener the symbiotic relationship between visual art and noise music. Julius specifically augmented the history of audio art by meticulously working in the Zen zone between everyday sculptural objects, dim dins, and quietness. In his often derelict but delicate works, subtle noise vibrations become palpable, physical things.
Using the visual attraction of sculptural objects to entice the eye, the body’s so-called perceptive sovereign, to his sounds, Julius’s minimalist acoustic works sensitize the ear and mind to the great variety (and often subtlety) of sounds that exist in the world around us. He accomplished this John-Cage-like goal by using commonplace CD players or cassette recorders to play faint soundscapes that draw us deeper toward the objects. Sometimes (as in this show) he delicately nestled small speakers emitting apprehensive noises within rusted objects, piles of pigments, small, hand-made, ceramic bowls, paper bags, and sheets of glass — all which resonate and diffuse the sound. Generally, he used tiny, standard loudspeakers to produce slight, chirpy sounds performed at the limits of audio perceptibility, such as can be heard in his “Small Music #7: Dance on Takashima Island 1 and 2” (1998).
As example of how this visual attraction operates: I had to get down on my knees and bend over to hear the concealed cracking noises of “Music for Old Paint” (1983). The humility of the grating noise discovered there is typical not only of another great Fluxus noise master, Yasunao Tone, but also of the sonic flavor used by minimal techno and microhouse DJs since the early 1990s. “Music for Old Paint” is an underwhelming, yet seductive work that produced in me sensations of private revelation rarely encountered in our time of maximal availability. As with the dangling “Orange Cello (Sound Cooking)” (1984/2017), the vibrating cones of the speakers slightly enlivens the encrusting physical material that partially covers them. The work’s trembling crustiness makes the odd, low-volume noise become concrete to the eye.
Each frail, rusty, grubby piece here shares in the Arte Povera and post-minimal aesthetics popular in the Soho gallery scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s — the time of their making. But in actuality, they are rather monumental works requiring copious amounts of empty space to properly frame their operational existence. In that way, they reminded me not only of Akio Suzuki’s simple but spacey sound recordings of everyday objects, like “Bottle,” made in 2007, but also of Fred Sandback’s très chic, ultra-minimal string sculptures: barely existing art objects that are also unimaginable to conceive without the generous, if tatty, Soho loft spaces of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
A few other tentative sound-sculptures by Julius, such as the elegantly minimalist “Iron Bamboo” (1982), also lightly occupied Galerie Thomas Bernard’s open atmosphere, and they too impacted me strongly. Their timorous seduction lured me into an enlarged visual-aural mindfulness that stayed with me throughout the day. “Iron Bamboo” is a cunning humming work that seems to be very much in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s sly sound sculpture “À Bruit Secret” (With Hidden Noise) (1916) that he accomplished with art critic and collector Walter Arensberg and playwright Sophie Treadwell. Just what softly rattles inside it when shaken remains a quiet mystery.
In Music in a Corner, only Julius’s “Iron Ring, Rusty” (1987) remained mysteriously silent the moment I bent down to hear it. As with “Orange Cello (Sound Cooking)” and the slightly pulsating (and very cute) “Music in a Corner” (1983), Julius had little CD players transmit buzzing noises that vibrate the membranes of small loudspeakers turned to face upwards. In particular, “Music in a Corner” is a wonderfully charming piece that seems to indicate a life within its banal, dusty material — something suggestive of panpsychism as much as vitalism or animism. Its dancing, greenish dirt reminded me too of what the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger says about reality: that from a certain scientific perspective, the physical world is only the quivering, electro-magnetic oscillation of wavelengths.
Rolf Julius, Music in a Corner, Early Works continues at Galerie Thomas Bernard (13 rue des Arquebusiers, 3rd arrondissement, Paris) through October 7. The Château Chasse-Spleen in Moulis-en-Médoc is also now presenting an exhibition of Rolf Julius titled Red (Inside) until October 30.