October 25, 2016

Art Question: Why is Female Sound Bad to Hear?

“Why is female sound bad to hear?” that’s the question asked by Anne Carson in an essay on the gender of sound. It reminded me of the artist Tino Seghal choosing women to perform the role of security guard in the museum, surprising the visitor with singing in high pitch voices. As we know, high pitch equals low authority in our society. Carson notices how in Homer’s Odysseus disorderly female sound is associated with wild space. A man is supposed to control his own emotions and therefore their sound, whereas a “woman is that creature who puts the inside on the outside.” 

Carson refers also to an anecdote Ernest Hemingway wrote about in his memoirs A Moveable Feast, when he accidentally listened in to women’s voices from the room next door and was so repelled by it that he left. One of them was the voice of Gertrude Stein, the other probably her partner Alicia Toklas. Hemingway wrote: “Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t pussy. Don’t, please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.' ... She got to look like a Roman emperor and that was fine if you liked your women to look like Roman emperors .... I could never make friends again truly, neither in my heart nor in my head.” Truth be told, Gertrude Stein wasn’t that nice about Hemingway either. “He looks like a modern,” she said, “and he smells of the museums.”

October 24, 2016

Abstract Cries of Murderous Birds: the Trautonium

I had a good time yesterday listening to the trautonium played by Peter Pichler at the Alfred Ehrhardt Stiftung. At moments it go so loud and shrill that some people in the audience had to hold their hands on their ears. That’s the sonic power of this pre-synthesizer: its sound is dissonant, it has a great pitch-slide, and you can hit full volume with only a short depression of the finger. One knob in particular seemed to be Pichler’s favourite and he explained later it was the one that can turn a sound from soft to sharp. The trautonium was created in Berlin in 1929 as an instrument that creates a new sound that doesn’t imitate anything. Abstract music, so to say. 

Accompanying a film of Alfred Ehrhardt’s Korallen - Skulpturen der Meere, 1964, it was the sound that made the corals look like aliens. Now I also know why The Birds of Hitchcock freaked me out - the whole sound track was created by the trautonium. Hitchock wanted an electronic, cold, unnatural sound for his horror movie and came upon Oskar Sala playing the trautonium in Berlin. Picher gave us a bit of The Birds at the end of his concert. It is the sound track of the trautonium: abstract cries of murderous birds. Yet the sound of screaming birds wasn’t longer used for the seventh and last attack in the movie. Hitchcock explained: “What I wanted to get in that attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, ‘Now we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumph or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.’”

October 22, 2016

Cocktail Hour at a François Morellet Exhibition

Invitation card of the exhibition in Thibaut de Ruyter's trademark - the negative photograph

Raisins, green tomatoes and crackers were served together with some delicious cocktails at last night’s finissage of Neue-Neue Nationalgalerie, a François Morellet exhibition at Jordan/Seydoux. I arrived late, hadn’t eaten, and it was the first thing I went for. I swiftly brushed by curator Thibaut de Ruyter, letting him know my first impression - “so 1950s!” He took that the wrong way and kept shadowing me during the rest of the night saying the exhibition was referencing two decades later: the 1970s. Fact is that it was in the 1970s that Morellet had his first big retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Exhibiting at the Neue Nationalgalerie is always a bit of a struggle for artists since there are no walls. Thibaut told me that Van der Rohe had been on the lazy side and he had used an unrealized project for the Bacardi family in Cuba in order to build the museum in Berlin. The result is a transparent hall which is better for having cocktail parties than for hanging exhibitions. So Morellet decided to hang his paintings with wires from the ceiling, which turned out to be a magnificent idea. 

Exhibition view

Thibaut de Ruyter found those exhibition photos of the 1970s, plastered them on one wall, and took over the same hanging for the other works in the space. That’s why I got the 1950s effect, because I’m sure that this hanging method was invented in that decade after the war, a time when space was economized to the fullest. Think of the 1950s kitchens and offices. The same happened with exhibitions space - walls or no walls, hang the pictures in the middle! At least, that’s my theory - I don’t know where I got it from, probably Mad Men. But I must say that it’s also Morellet’s work that made me think in that direction. When you see his work as such, you can see it has aesthetics, but there is also something that makes you wonder if he wasn’t just a white male with the right connections in the 1950s, when being a man still meant you owned the place. This was before Andy Warhol came in.

The thing is, Morellet’s work needs installation and then it does magic. He was apparently good at it himself, and so is Thibaut de Ruyter, who is an architect, which you notice because he is meticulous about space - a wrong plinth can freak him out whereas a perfect symmetry of lines makes him happy. That’s the person you need to handle Morellet’s work. Also because Thibaut, despite his rigour about the 1970s, brings his own subtle humour to it. I mean, he chose the color green for one wall to evoke the green marble shafts of the Neue Nationalgalerie. I can’t explain to you why that is funny but I had to laugh when he told me, so it is. Thibaut actually told me that Morellet himself had a sense of humour.  A visitor said you could see the humour in the titles: they describe exactly what is being done in the paintings (Du vert à l’orange (5 trames de carrés réguliers pivotées sur le côté) which is also kind of funny in that very particular funny kind of way.