Listening

Listening is a touring exhibition that brings artists together to engage with what its curator Sam Belinfante terms ‘the idea of listening rather than merely its aural objects’. The exhibition pays homage to both sonic art and its exhibition histories, yet also self-consciously critiques it, offering an alternative relationship between the visual and the sonic in contemporary art. Taking ‘the listening body’ as its starting point, the exhibition presents listening as both a subject and method of interrogation, drawing on neuroscience, philosophy and theory to explore sensory encounters with contemporary art.

Belinfante and several of the artists are musicians, and this is apparent in both the works and their presentation. The curatorial position is one Belinfante terms ‘choreography’, with the individual artworks as ‘voices’ in a ‘chorus’. The allusion to opera is more than simply figurative as the exhibition borrows techniques from theatre, taking over the lighting and projection systems to turn works on and off at different times, and thus allow each individual ‘voice’ to be heard. Laure Prouvost’s ‘The e-cigarette and the butter’ and ‘Its magic electronics’ (both 2014) utilise spotlights to highlight the interchange between anthropomorphised objects as protagonists of an absurdist Beckett-like play.

Choreography is not limited to the artworks but also encompasses the audience as the exhibition invites non-visual forms of participation and particularised forms of movement. In Amalia Pica’s ‘Evesdropping’ (2013), the placement of glasses along the gallery wall prompts the audience to move in closer to attempt to hear beyond the wall; whilst Prem Sahib’s ‘Taking Turns’ (2013), invites a search for the source of the distant sound, only to reveal that the nightclub is actually inaccessible. Carey Young’s ‘Follow the Protest’ (2009) and Laurie Anderson’s ‘The Handphone Table’ (1978) require the physical presence of the audience to activate and complete the work; for Young the participant must pick up the telephone and listen in, whilst it is only through placing their elbows on the table that the gallery visitor is able to hear Anderson’s hidden electronics.

Several works suggest synesthesia in their mixing of the senses; in ‘The Handphone Table’ hearing is activated through touch as the participant places their elbow on the table, whilst  the specially constructed screens of Imogen Stidworthy’s ‘Sacha’ (2011), made from transparent acoustic material, cause sound to emanate directly from the screen itself. Such sensory blurring encourages a  focus on the perceptual experience of listening, directly referenced in Haroon Mirza’s ‘A Million cm² of Quiet Space ii 2003/14’, which, recollecting John Cage, invites entry into an anechoic chamber of complete silence, where only sounds of the internal body are to be heard.

The exhibition also references the social, historical and even mythical precedents of listening as both Mirza’s ‘Siren’ (2012) and Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘Song’ (2011) cite the infamous Sirens of Greek mythology, whilst Mikhail Karikis’ ‘Seawomen’ (2012) records the South Korean Haenyeo (sea women) who practice the sumbisori breathing technique to dive and collect sea objects. Ultimately, it is this exploration of such diverse forms of what listening may constitute for contemporary art that makes the exhibition so interesting.  Belinfante’s ambitious curatorial strategy ensures the liberation of non-visual engagement from its traditionally sidelined role in art history, and sets a model for alternative methods of active participation in sonic art.

Listening continues until 30 May 2015.

Top Image: Listening (installation view) Hayward Touring Curatorial Open, curated by Sam Belinfante, Site Gallery and Sheffield Institute of Arts, Sheffield, 2015. Image courtesy Site Gallery. Photo: Julian Lister.

Image: Carey Young. Follow the Protest, 2009 (installation view), Hayward Touring Curatorial Open, curated by Sam Belinfante, ©Carey Young. Image courtesy of the artist, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Colin Davison.

Clare Nadal is a writer, curator and postgraduate student based in Sheffield.