Many artists are inspired by music. And some artists have tried to create visual pieces that embody music even in the absence of sound. But however one distinguishes inspiration-driven art from art that attempts transformation, viewers of Several Silences (at the Knoxville Museum of Art through May 20) might wonder why someone working in one artistic medium would want their work to reflect or become another form of expression.
Although exhibitors take on the theme of silence by various means and with varying objectives, their efforts—whether in the form of an installation, video, drawing, or photograph—reference both symbolic and actual silence. John Cage's "4'33""—the non-performance in which a pianist sits idle before an audience for four minutes and 33 seconds—is directly connected to works by two of the 11 international exhibition participants. Yet the spirit of the now-iconic so-called silent piece introduced by the avant-garde composer in 1952 permeates almost everything in Several Silences.
Whatever the extent to which Cage's subject matter is sound—in "4'33"" that can be any audible, happenstance background sound—he can feasibly be labeled a "sound artist." Nevertheless, the work making up Several Silences is less sound art than it is an assertion of meaning determined by various kinds of silence.
Assembled by the University of Chicago's Renaissance Society, Several Silences is not a traveling exhibition; rather, it has been reassembled in Knoxville. The show's name alludes to an essay by Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), a philosopher whose exploration of postmodernism—a term he coined—addresses the notion that to silence one's voice is a form of victimization.
Silence-as-oppression in the current show is represented by a neon installation, its prominent pink triangle referring to both Nazi concentration camp badges worn by homosexuals and to the myths about AIDS that have discouraged greater public concern. Created by Gran Fury, an American artists' and activists' collective existing from 1988 until 1994, the piece displays an illuminated phrase (also its title): "Silence = Death."
More illustrative, albeit somewhat mysterious, a C-print by German photographers Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann shows a narrow basement room, an empty chair within the expanse of muddy floor imprinted by boot soles. Labeled "personal kill 13," the image is one of a series revealing the environments in which U.S. Army soldiers are sometimes trained for close-range killing. As such, the photograph feels quiet in a way that buzzes with secrecy and concealed violence.
As for the works pointing to Cage, one is Carl Michael von Hausswolff's vinyl record on a turntable with headphones, titled "4'33" (81 inches)," an amusing take on Cage's composition, given that the length of its ongoing, non-functional groove is what the artist is referring to, instead of a portion of time. Von Hausswolff's piece is a simple but significant reminder that silence is the topic, no matter how it is measured.
Seeing that they're scattered throughout the central part of the gallery, my wait to describe 100 identical crystal balls, each containing a laser image of a suspended blank page, is like stepping around an elephant in the room. But the luminous six-inch orbs, produced by British artist-of-all-stripes Ryan Gander, convey something more subtle than works concerned with imposed silence or the impossibility of silence. Instead, what Gander has titled "A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor" suggests Zen consciousness—thoughts on the brink of coming and going.
Audio recordings in Several Silences are of a memorial nature, as in the almost obligatory moments of silence the living now devote to the dead. Another British artist in the show, Jonty Semper, has contrasted one minute of pure studio silence with one minute of sound from a quiet observance during the funeral of Princess Diana. American Paul Dickinson presents "Tableau Vivant," a different kind of remembrance—in this instance, one of place rather than person. It captures ambient sound in a gallery of Chicago's Terra Museum, which closed in 2004. Again, we think of Cage, and the inevitable presence of sound despite any summoning of silence.
Of all the work in the show, my personal favorite is artist/comedian Harry Shearer's "The Silent Echo Chamber." Part of a continuing project called "Nontalking Heads," Shearer's installation features seven screens showing pirated videotape sequences—what he calls raw-feed found objects—of numerous politicians and celebrities in the moments before going on air. Other than the oddity of observing John McCain, Anderson Cooper, Henry Kissinger, Dr. Phil, and others not talking, what's fascinating is how much of each personality is revealed by childlike restlessness, small gestures, nervous fidgeting, and multitasking. Whereas Michael Moore seems quite comfortable and thoughtful while waiting to be recorded, Sean Hannity (not surprisingly) possesses an empty-storefront gaze.
Seeing Shearer's work, viewers might realize that not being influenced by words can result in being informed by silence. Like the Taoist concept that a doorway is the empty space within a frame and not the frame itself, Several Silences convinces us that silence can be more than the absence of something else. m