This Saturday, August 10, the Museum of Modern Art will open its first major exhibition of sound art. Soundings: A Contemporary Score presents work by sixteen contemporary artists who use sound, whether as an exclusive medium or in combination with video, installation, painting, sculpture, and more. One of those artists is Jacob Kirkegaard, who’s showing his piece “Aion” (2006), a recording of some of the abandoned spaces of Chernobyl. The 50-minute installation includes both sound and video in an enclosed and darkened room. It is a portrait of four empty spaces: a swimming pool, a concert hall, a gymnasium, and a church. Kirkegaard recorded ten minutes within each space and then played the recording back into the room, layering the sound to create a unique tone emanating from a seeming void.
Kirkegaard, originally from Denmark, focuses on the scientific and aesthetic aspects of sonic perception, exploring acoustic spaces and phenomena that usually remain imperceptible to the immediate ear. Currently based in Berlin, Germany, he’s a graduate of the Academy for Media Arts in Cologne. Kirkegaard has travelled not only to Ukraine but also to Ethiopia and Greenland in order to record portraits of places in those countries. I recently met up with him to discuss his work and inclusion in Soundings. We spoke about his experiences in Chernobyl, the differences between the European versus American markets, and the role of the sublime in his art.
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Marina Lorenzini: How did the project with MoMA come about?
Jacob Kirkegaard: I was contacted by Barbara London, the curator — she just emailed me and said that she was preparing this sound art exhibition. She told me that she was on a trip through Europe to meet artists and do studio visits. She came, we had some grapes and sat in my apartment, talked, and I showed her some works. Then we went for dinner and talked more, and then she left. After a month or two, she emailed me and told me that I was selected for the show.
ML: With this being the first major sound art exhibition in New York, do you have any thoughts on how the audience will receive your work?
JK: I’m never so much concerned about how people will receive my piece. I try to listen within myself, what I like to do and what I find interesting. To say it more roughly, it’s none of my concern; I don’t do things to please people. I try to do some things that I find relevant that I also believe would be relevant to other people. I don’t want to create something that is in a certain way, beautiful or not. Just create something that is open enough for you to make your own story out of it.
ML: What’s the difference between sound art in America and in Europe, based on your experiences?
JK: I have a feeling that it’s much more thriving in Europe — there is a bigger scene; there are more sound art people. I’ve been invited many times to Holland, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and Denmark. Conferences, concerts, exhibitions, etc. There are a lot of things happening, though I don’t feel like it’s happening here much.
ML: What are some sounds that are characteristic to you of New York, or maybe even America, that you haven’t found elsewhere?
JK: New York has a very nice rustic rumble — the rumble from the trains is amazing, especially when they pass over the Manhattan Bridge. This I really love. That’s the most characteristic sound of New York, for me. Then, of course, in the subway, there’s this “ding, dong,” “stand clear of the closing doors, please,” and “ladies and gentleman.” It’s like something from the ’50s.
The sound of America … my favorite sound is the train horns that you hear in the distance. You sometimes hear them at night. I especially hear them in California, and in Texas as well. I was at a fantastic blues bar close to Houston, and in the middle of the night there was just this beautiful whistle coming from a train. It was perfect.
ML: Have you been able to speak to the other artists in the exhibition? What has come out of those conversations?
JK: No, I haven’t yet spoken much to the other artists in the show. But in general I often miss the chance to converse more with fellow artists about their pieces. Sometimes I almost feel like it’s a taboo. We are always just like, ‘oh, this is nice’ or ‘I like your piece,’ but never, ‘I didn’t really understand it’ or ‘what do you mean? where are you going with this?’ I often miss that. It’s more like congrats, shoulder claps, and high fives.
ML: Do you think that’s due to perceived competition?
JK: I don’t feel the competition because we all do something that is our thing, in a way. It’s not about who is the fastest runner. Say if we all went to Chernobyl and said, who did the best and most interesting piece using this technique? Who could get the best rooms, the best sound? That would be a competition. But if you look at Tristan [Perich]’s work, the microtonal wall, that is totally different from what I am doing. I know we are not competitors. We represent different aspects of the sound art category. You can only be happy because we are all a family, I think.
ML: How do you see yourself in the artistic community?
JK: I actually don’t like to call myself a sound artist. I usually call myself just an artist, but with a primary focus on sound, because I don’t like to exclude or seclude myself. I like to be a part of the visual art world because I also do video and photography. But I do understand that MoMA wants to do this, brand it as a sound art thing. And that’s fantastic, that they invite contemporary people to focus on this.
I think that it’s a maturity period for the art world, and by extension the people who frequent MoMA. They are maybe not used to listening, and for them you need to say, ‘this is sound art.’
ML: What have you learned from a place via sound that you have not via imagery?
JK: I don’t actually know if I can say right now what I have learned. What I can say is that you have a bunch of senses that you can use. Usually, we use our eyes to see a country, or pictures, or to read about it. If we use our ears to listen to a place, for example when I was in Ethiopia, it’s just another kind of understanding of a place. If you go and decide to listen and really ask people there what they hear — what is the sound of Ethiopia for you? — and then at the end of the trip you come home with all of this sound, then you get the feeling of, ‘this is Ethiopia.’ Of course, you can learn something, you can say what you are hearing is this and that. But it just tells you the same story in another way. I would say it broadens your perspective into understanding the world around you.
And of course, speaking about sound is so much more abstract; it comes from everywhere, and you don’t see what it is. You are not in control of what you hear or not, but at the same time you can look at me and pretend you’re listening, when in reality you are thinking of something else. I can’t see that, though I can see whether you are looking at me or not. What I see is that it looks like you are listening, so I am using my eyes to figure out whether you are. I cannot hear whether you are hearing me. To get more awareness of all of these aspects of our audible senses, we can get a broader picture of the world around us. This is what I try to do in my works.
ML: You go to such wide-reaching locations for your work. What does the personal journey entail? How has the integration into a culture informed your work, your person?
JK: I sometimes think about this idea of tourism. I see people with their hats, the big camera, the map, and they seem all stressed. I overheard some Danish family yesterday, a mother with two kids, stressing over their plans for the day. She said, ‘yes, yes, let’s go over to Wall Street,’ and then the daughter said something like ‘yeah, but I don’t want the same mistake again like yesterday where we are just walking around and don’t know where we are going.’ I think this is exactly what I haven’t done. I haven’t been a tourist. What do you learn about a place from the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center site, Times Square that you haven’t seen already on TV?
When I travel, I go with a mission: I go because I have to record something there. So it’s about getting in touch with people, meeting people, but not at these tourist sites. The different needs that I have put me in touch with people in that particular way, and I like that. I have less expectations. It’s about feeling that everywhere, in a way, is your home. The place becomes less alienated because I don’t see it from a map; I try to learn about a place from its people, what they say. The first time I was in Paris, I was there for two weeks, and I didn’t go to the Eiffel Tower. I just stayed locally with people I knew. I stayed with these people for two weeks, these Parisian people, and out of their apartment window, they had a little passage where no cars could pass. There were people coming in and out, and to listen to how they were talking to each other and what they were talking about — this taught me so much about life in Paris.
ML: What did it feel like to visit the Chernobyl disaster site?
JK: Chernobyl was the most special experience that I have had about a place. It was very unexpected. What was not unexpected was to see a civilization crumbling, a city, towns, and villages just being literally taken over by nature. But the nature is so mystical; I think that is what struck me the most. I’ve been dreaming about it after, about going back there and being in this place again. “Mystical” is definitely the word — it’s not horrifying or it wasn’t sad or it wasn’t happy or super exciting. It was just very mystical, and the silence was so different, eerie. You listen and you know that there is something in the air. It makes you listen in another way; it makes you see other things. If you look at the trees, you see that the trees are radioactive. It just changes your perception of things.
ML: Could you speak to the title, “Aion”? How did you select that?
JK: It came from the whole time aspect that I think only occurred to me when I was there. I wanted to work with that time that exists in Chernobyl. I would definitely like to make a reference to our way of thinking, human beings of Europe, about time to understand things. To my understanding, “aion” doesn’t mean eternity; eternity doesn’t end. What I understood from this word is that it means just an immense amount of time; it stretches beyond our understanding. It’s a mystical time, pure and transcendental. That is what I think is interesting, because that is what radioactive time does. The time of radiation, of 70,000 years that it takes for it to die out … Imagine that 4,000 years ago they created the pyramids, and that was what they did. That was their testament of time. But now it’s reaching so far, what we have created beyond ourselves — we have been able to create aion. We have never been able to create something like this before. We created the pyramids, but they won’t last for another 70,000 years probably. There are wars that a pyramid is vulnerable to, but radiation will remain on this Earth no matter whether we have an ice age or wars or anything. This is aion, this is the idea of the Greek concept of what we think of as infinity.
ML: “Aion” amplifies the sound of an abandoned space. Do you consider the sublime an element in your work?
JK: I do think the sublime element was very interesting there, or generally in my work. I like to record sound from another perspective than from what you’re used to. There is a quote from Twin Peaks: “the owls are not what they seem.” I love it because sounds are not what they seem. For example, when you hear a car, you can recognize it, but when you really dive in and go behind the sound, you discover such a different world. When you listen to the mechanics, the object of the car, the vibration , what happens is that the sound doesn’t even sound like that sound anymore because it sounds like something else you’ve never heard before. And that is when, maybe, it becomes sublime. Because it becomes subconscious, something you might be able to refer to, but you’re not really sure what it is.
The Chernobyl sound, it’s very important — it refers to the question regarding meaning. I don’t want them to feel as though this is beautiful; I want them to feel intrigued. I would rather create something that doesn’t say anything in particular, but just the sound of that room. So, maybe this is sublime, actually.
ML: Have you ever spoken to deaf or hearing-impaired people who have experienced your work?
JK: I played a piece for some elderly men, and one of them had pretty bad hearing, he said. I played one of my pieces that I’m presenting here as well, at Eyebeam in Chelsea. It’s called “Labyrinthitis” — it’s about sound from my ears, what the ears are generating, creating, producing. When you listen to it, they produce tones in your own ears as well. He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I haven’t felt that my ears worked that well for years.’ I wonder if some of his hair cells started working again, producing sounds.
Soundings: A Contemporary Score opens at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on August 10.