News Archive 2009-2018

The Sound of Art: Art Museum’s ‘Second Sight’ Exhibit Goes Beyond the Visual Archives

The Bowdoin College Museum and Art will be holding a reception and opening festivities on March 29, Thursday afternoon, for the new exhibition, “Second Sight: the Paradox of Vision in Contemporary Art.”

If you check out the latest show at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, you’ll encounter the first artwork before even entering the gallery. It’s a sound piece, a 1966 creation by composer Steve Reich being played on a loop in the tiny foyer, one of several works in this show with an auditory component.

Second Sight: The Paradox of Vision in Contemporary Art runs through June 3, 2018, and goes beyond the purely visual component of art, said exhibition curator and Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Ellen Tani, who has also compiled an anthology on the subject. “Not only the domain of the non-visual itself, but also how it can be a space for creativity is a topic of interest for me.”

There is of course a visual component and the show contains plenty to see in terms of paintings and sculptures, but there’s a strong awareness of other modes of experience and a willingness to cater to the visually challenged visitor. “I know I can’t represent blindness, but one aspect I feel strongly about is accessibility for blind or visually impaired people. It’s not something many museums have a protocol in place for.”

There are tactile elements to the show—a beaded curtain you walk through for example (Felix Gonzales-Torres’“Untitled” (water)), and an installation that invites visitors to sit on a couch and hold cushions (When We Make Things Openly Accessible We Create a Force Field, by Carmen Papalia)—”but the bulk of non-visual experience in the arts here is in audio form,” said Tani, and this is reflected in many of the pieces.

The Use of Sound

The Reich sound piece playing in the foyer, Come Out (1966), tackles the issue of racial injustice and features the words of black teenager Daniel Hamm, one of the so-called Harlem Six who was falsely accused of murder in 1964. The words “come out to show them” were spoken by Hamm as he described how he had to puncture one of the bruises on his body to convince the police he needed medical attention after being beaten up in custody. The words are repeated continuously on two channels for twelve minutes, changing slightly each time, said Tani, “until a process of sonic abstraction occurs and they become inscrutable by the end.”

Two works by conceptual artist William Anastasi feature everyday utilitarian objects—a radiator and a block and tackle, neither of which are working but both of which are accompanied by recorded sounds you would associate with them. “The artist is showing his sense of humor here, playing with the illusion that representation and reality are one and the same.” The difference between perception and reality and the psychological effect of sound are also at play here, said Tani, as many people think they can feel the heat from the radiator even though it’s not functioning.

What sounds like birdsong can be heard emanating from one corner of the gallery. It is an LP record compiled by the LA-based artist Gala Porras-Kim. “She’s interested in understanding both the effects of colonialism and the challenge of preserving and archiving endangered languages within the field of linguistic anthropology.” The language represented on the record is one spoken by the Zapotec people, who are mostly in the southwestern central highlands of Mexico. “Zapotec is a tonal language and many dialects do not have a written alphabet,” said Tani. “But as a tonal language, its meaning can be approximated by whistling. What the artist has done here is match the sound waves of this tonal speech with whistling sounds found on YouTube.”

Arguably, the most imposing sound object is Terry Adkins’ Off Minor (from the series Black Beethoven), a rotating cylinder of wood, steel, and brass with spikes protruding. The sculpture springs into action at certain times of the day, emitting a loud, metallic, scraping sound that’s been known to set off the security alarms in the museum. “The sound portrays the agony of Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness,” said Tani. “Adkins is also referring to the longstanding theory that the great composer had some African ancestry.” The title of the piece, meanwhile, Off Minor, refers to a composition by Thelonious Monk, leading to inevitable comparisons between the twentieth-century African American jazz great and the legendary German composer, and their possible shared ethnicity.

With Technical Assistance From…

Second Sight was a more technically challenging show to put on than most, said Tani, because of the numerous auditory components. She had assistance from colleagues in the Information and Technology and Academic Technology and Consulting departments, as well as from student interns. “I needed help with things like setting up speakers, recording sound tracks, and putting sound files into the correct format.”

The audio descriptions* are another big part of the show: Several works on display are accompanied by listening devices, enabling people to hear spoken visual descriptions. “But it’s not as simple as just reading out what’s on the wall label,” said Tani. “These descriptions assume the listener might not be able to see the work, so they focus on describing what the work looks like rather than offering an interpretation.”

Senior interactive developer David Francis teamed up with colleagues Adam Lord from IT and academic technology consultant Stephen Houser to make the listening devices, which are attached to the wall and include a detachable earpiece. These earpieces, said Francis, were printed out on campus using Bowdoin’s 3D printer. “It was an interesting experience,” he said. “We were happy with how aesthetically they appear on the wall, using everyday materials. It’s a great example of what technology can achieve in an art show at relatively low cost.”

Such technical feats, said Tani, were crucial in helping her fulfill the mission of the exhibit. “It’s all about challenging the visual as a domain of beauty, of aesthetics and of knowledge. But it’s also about crossing the lines between different modes of experience.”

* Tani wrote and recorded some of the audio descriptions, and others were contributed by students, including Maria McCarthy ’20, Hailey Beaman ’18, Kinaya Hassane ’19, Sebastian Gilligan-Kim ’19, Oceanna Pak ’19, and Xiyin Lin ’21.