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Bill Viola, from Hatsu Yume First Dream (1981-2002).

Art Without Logos

About "Rumore: un buco nel silenzio"
“Noise: an hole in the silence”

Milano, Spazio Oberdan
February 28 - May 25, 2008

by Giuseppe Gavazza

I very much love the title of this exhibit: it is probably what I love most about the show. Previously, I wrote for The Art Section about the absence and presence of sound/music in contemporary art spaces (and times). If silence is the absence of sounds, well, open your senses and listen: silence is very present all over museums, art galleries, and exhibits. After the big, important exhibition “Silence: listen to the show” (last summer in Turin at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo) a new exhibition appears to our happy new ears as something very attractive: "Rumore: un buco nel silenzio" (“Noise: a hole in the silence”).

Both the title and the list of artists were quite attractive: Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, John Cage, Mircea Cantor, Giuseppe Chiari, Jimmie Durham, Jan Fabre, Lara Favaretto, William Kentridge, La Monte Young, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Kris Martin, Shirin Neshat, Melik Ohanian, Yoko Ono, Adrian Paci, Diego Perrone, Miguel Angel Rios, Luigi Russolo, Mungo Thomson, Bill Viola, Jordan Wolfson. It’s a pity no catalogue is yet available.

This Milanese edition of an exhibition previously seen in Watou, Belgium, during the summer of 2007 under the title “Een lek in het zwijgen: noise”, considered to be the best exhibit of the year in Belgium, may have suffered from its new space. Art spaces are (generally) designed for seeing, but sound is different: it is invasive, not directional, and - as we know - “there are no eyelids for the ears.” In Spazio Oberdan, a big central space was defined as the “agorà” for polyphonic presentation, resolving into random voices difficult to understand and to connect to the related video images. Other smaller spaces provided more intimate opportunities to listen to and see single works but, unluckily, technical devices in two of these rooms didn’t work, leaving the audio representation of work to our imaginations.

A good appetizer, hidden in the entry staircase, was Luigi Russolo’s “Risveglio di una città” (The City Awakens, 1914); a century-old manifesto for an innovative conception of music that was truly utopian in its time: Open your ears--music could be anything you hear.

Apparently, as was explained to visitors, the curators intended the central Agora to be boisterous: a chaotic convergence of clashing, random, different sounds to represent the situation of the actual world. Art as mirror, or map, of the world. I can believe this was the idea but it is, in my opinion, an unoriginal and unhappy one. Some silent conceptual sculptural works survived this noisy struggle: Giuseppe Chiari’s “Scultura per pianoforte” (1989), John Cage’s “Please Play or the Mother, the Father or the Family” (1989), La Monte Young’s “Piano Piece for David Tudor” (1989), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s “Musica per Toilette” (1914) revisited by Daniele Lombardi as “Omaggio a Marinetti” (1990; wow—only one year later than the others!). 

But how can we perceive and understand Bill Viola’s slow, dream-like, hour-long video “Hatsu Yume – First Dream” (1981-2002) in such a cacophonous room? A couple of videos, one of a Joseph Beuys art performance, the other of silent, caged, and suspicious animals, could be appreciated in this context (Joseph Beuys, “Coyote: ‘I like America and America likes me’” [1974] and Mircea Cantor, “Departure” [2005]) as could the water-aged short black and white film “La Pluie” (The Rain, 1969) by Marcel Broodthaers and Mungo Thomson’s “The American Desert (for Chuck Jones)” (2002), derived from the desert backdrops in Jones’s “Roadrunner” cartoons. But the gentle sound of dancing, spinning tops in Miguel Angel Rios’s “On the Edge” (2005) and the swirling smoke movements of William Kentridge’s drawn animation “Zeno Writing” (2001/2002) appear as silent movies (were they really?) literally stoned by Jimmie Durham’s (audio)video “Stoning the Refrigerator” (1996) and overwhelmed by Adrian Paci’s close-up recording of a diesel electric generator in “Turn on” (2004). 

In case a curator would like to try a different approach, I have a suggestion. There are various systems that permit one to direct sounds in a big space to smaller areas or headphones with manual or automatic selection of the desired audio track. Fondazione Sandretto solved this problem with an excellent system for their show in the summer of 2007.

Moving a half floor up from the global noise arena, I entered the intimate room of Jan Fabre’s “A medieval punishment for a contemporary artist (landscape with self-portrait)” (2007). It was great to enter, close the little door, and listen to the crackling sound of my footprints on the ground while seeing, in the night-blue light, the head of the artist emerging from ground like Molly in Beckett’s Happy Days: good silence as a hole in the noise. But this could not last, and I had to emerge from the quiet hole back into the noisy art and world. 

Five more rooms to close the art-loop, every one with an artwork.

There were twinned rooms, cheek to cheek, on the themes of the smile and laughter: one hundred famous portraits persuaded by Photoshop to smile (Diego Perrone, “La stanza dei cento re che ridono” [The Room of the Hundred Laughing Kings, 1999]) and Lara Favaretto’s “Una risata vi seppellirà (Omaggio a Gino De Dominicis)” (A Laugh to Bury You: Homage to Gino De Dominicis, 2005), a one-foot cubic black box that laughs out loud (but was sadly out of service). Also not working were technical tools for Jordan Wolfson’s “Chaplin Piece” (2005), which consisted of the final speech from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator written on the wall and “spoken” in sign language via a noisy 16 mm film projector. Since the projector was not working, we all became deaf.

One step more: Melik Ohanian’s “The Hand” (2002): a video installation on nine monitors in which nine pairs of hands tell personal stories in an unreal silence.

To finish: Yoko Ono and Shirin Neshat. Good work by famous artists; silent, like 99% of art pieces. “We are all water” includes 118 little bottles half full of water with important people’s names handwritten on white labels. The connection with Ono’s song of the same title provides a weak justification for the work’s inclusion, in my opinion. Perhaps the photos “Shoja” and “I am its secret” by Shirin Neshat were included because of the artist’s important name, as I am not able to connect them to the theme of noise and silence. Any piece by any famous artist could have substituted for Ono’s and Neshat’s works. It’s always good to see important contemporary art being recognized, but I feel that the artists’ names functioned here as branding, as “certified good quality” logos. The audience for this exhibition probably didn’t need this.

A few blocks from Spazio Oberdamin in downtown Milan, I entered a Japanese chain store featuring only products without logos: quality, design, functionality, price, and form presented for themselves. I can imagine “no-logo” itself become a logo when subjected to large distribution, commercialism, and marketing’s rules. Nevertheless, I like to imagine a no-logo art gallery. What would happen? Would it be better for artists, curators, people, connoisseurs, art critics?

Giuseppe Gavazza is a composer who lives and works in Turin, Italy.

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