The elements of art – creative skill, imagination, beauty, and emotional resonance – are not limited to visual forms. It’s still possible to respond to art, interact with art, and engage in a conversation with art in a blindfold. When we hear art, with or without visual accompaniment, we absorb the information not only through our eardrums, but through our hair-follicles, our bones, and our very beings.
Sound art is a celebration of the very fundamentals of creative pursuits – to challenge our everyday perceptions of the experience of life, and right now, we’re in the grips of a golden period of it. Local sound art festivals like Liquid Architecture and The Now Now are bringing the medium to broader audiences.
International practitioners like Hong Kong-born Samson Young and deaf American artist Christine Sun Kim are redefining the realms of possibility with aural encounters. Major museums are looking more and more to sensory experiences beyond the visual to surprise and amaze visitors the world over. As an introduction to this burgeoning scene, here we look at a sonic visionary of the past, a current pioneer, and an Australian museum that’s reverberating sound art into the future.
Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) stands at the coalface of innovation in artistic pursuits, and its representation of sound artists is a showpiece of this philosophy. In its most interactive sense, the museum’s MONA FOMA and DARK MOFO festivals are where sound art comes to life. As festival patrons meander through a dynamic array of exhibitions, installations, and live performances, stages become galleries as galleries become stages.
In recent times, festival goers have experienced the likes of German artist Johannes S Sistermanns cling-wrapping a room to create an enormous speaker. In 2015, Chinese artist Li Binyuan’s piece Deathless Love involved the smashing of 250 hammers in 90 minutes. The beginnings and ends of each day at 2017’s DARK MOFO festival were heralded by a city-wide alarm system blasting what Siren Song producer Byron Scullin described as "sedate, beautiful, and interesting female incantations".
Melbourne artist Atticus J Bastow’s performance piece Swarm/Murmuration showcased the potential for interactivity in sound art as he conducted audience members as they produced unique tones on their smartphones.
This breakdown of the delineation between artist and audience, practitioner and participant, elevates the role of the observer to artist – an exciting phenomenon perhaps unique to this non-tactile medium. When unencumbered by bollards and barriers, selfie sticks and queues, and with eyes closed, we can move freely among masterpieces, touched by an invisible force.
A key figure in the post-war avant-garde, John Cage was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Best known for his 1952 work 4’33”, Cage was a radical innovator of experimental music, often manipulating existing instruments to discover new purpose. Also a student of Zen Buddhism, he found philosophical influences in Eastern cultures – the ancient Chinese text I Ching a daily source of inspiration.
A famously disruptive composition, Cage wrote 4’33” for any instrument or combination of instruments. The piece instructs performers not to play a note for the four minute, thirty-three second duration. Thus, the 'music' consists of the environmental sounds heard by listeners. Far from an episode in silence, the 'composition' forces audience members to find richness in the otherwise unheard – a microcosm of small sounds too often obliterated.
In challenging the very concept of what constitutes music, the work continues to polarise opinions. But if the music is to be measured by the behavioural and emotional responses of those listening, 4’33” is unquestionably of enormous artistic and philosophical significance.
Through his immersive performances and installations, Paris-based Japanese sonic and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda explores the essential characteristics of sound itself. A pioneer of minimal electronic music centred on numerical data systems and technical mastery, his slowly evolving, mathematically precise soundscapes morph, mutate, swell, fade and vanish in occasionally bold, but often delicate patterns.
Concerned with sound in a ‘raw’ sense – wave forms, blips, hums, and noise – he also experiments with tones at the peripheries of audibility. When paired with his striking binary visuals, these experiments become full sensory encounters.
A former nightclub DJ, Ikeda has said that though his artistic methods have become far more technically sophisticated, the fundamentals of his work remain the same – melding sonic landscapes in satisfying ways. But global sell-out appearances at venues like Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s The Met, and Hobart’s DARK MOFO festival to mention just the tip of a very large iceberg, hint at artistic sentiments that run much deeper than mere mixing of tones.
Either way, notoriously media-shy Ikeda prefers not to let human words get in the way of his visions – allowing the experience of each artwork to speak in its own abstract terms. In a rare interview with The Observer in 2011, he explained, "I really don’t want to speak about any concepts. Because there are no concepts … If I say something that is a kind of answer, the audience will be stuck in what I am saying. And there are infinitely many answers."