Sounds, Relations and Art

written by Simona Vidmar

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Germano Celant, the Chief Curator of the Prada Foundation, is primarily interested in two phenomena of contemporary art: the sound, with its synaesthetic potential of arousing feelings and intensifying experience, and the establishment of relations in terms of designing artworks by understanding their context. His latest curatorial project Art or Sound in the historic Ca’ Corner in Venice is full of unusual ideas of instruments covering a three-hundred-year period, sound installations that come to life with our physical or online interaction, musical furniture which needs viewers as carriers of sound, various buttons which trigger ringing, roar, or noise from distant, or not-so-distant times, and so on. It is a cabinet of curiosities consisting of sounds, art, and (art) relations.


The palazzo on the Venetian Canal Grande has been home to the Prada Foundation for three years only. During this short period, the Foundation has confirmed itself as a relevant institution which has not only outperformed its competitors in the private sphere—for example, the François Pinault collection in Punta della Dogana, unprecedented in the degree of lack of ideas and concepts—but posed a challenge, primarily to museum authorities. It looks like the Prada Foundation has chosen its Venetian scene as an experimental space to try such, at first glance serious, topics of contemporary art as the historicalness, availability, and establishment of context.


The first of the introspective curatorial feats of Germano Celant, three years ago, was dedicated to Fluxus, a small utopia of the 20th century, which gave birth to big names in the world of art, a movement that remained loyal to the idea of changing art into experience. Fluxus, whose promoter was also Celant, established contradictions that the curator, even today, still finds interesting—a figure or gesture, sound or silence, nonsense or seriousness. His next Prada project was the reincarnation of Harald Szeemann’s watershed 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. In the era of Post-Pop and Post-Minimalism, Szeemann was reviewing new exhibition approaches at the Kunsthalle in Bern, everything was left to the process in which the observer was freed from security systems, plinths and fences, the exhibition became a dialectical space of dialogue between the artist and the curator, the works established mutual relations, and were interconnected. By looking backwards, the reconstruction of the Bernese event opened opportunities for ideas on new models in the communication of contemporary art beyond the vocabulary of the financial sector. The most recent project of the Prada Foundation, Art or Soundfrom the Multilingual to the Multisensory raises questions about the availability of visual art and museum, respectively, focusing on sound, which becomes a possible mediator between museum artifacts and contemporary experience. The Museum has become a place of sensory withdrawal: a vision-centric territory that only permits an exploration centered on the eyes, Germano Celant believes. He wants to free museums from the focus on the visual, and to shake off the neurotic dictate of not touching, not listening, not tasting, and not smelling.


As it is apparent from the title of the exhibition, Art or Sound, one could expect a certain amount of conflict in the palace on the Canal Grande. Indeed, the selection of more than 180 visual and audio artifacts from the 16th century to the present—collected from private and museum collections from Saint Petersburg to New York City—is not so much about the delineation of the pictorial and sculptural cross between visual objects and music, but about the search for the roots of such crossings, thus it is about understanding and resolving conflicts. Displayed over two piani nobili, the exhibition begins with a cacophony of hybrid objects from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries—a series of wind instruments with their snake bodies and heads, hybrids of multiple instruments, singing bird cages, music carriages, and a myriad of musical automata—where, by cross-breeding the audio with the visual, objects undergo a total metamorphosis. This historic gathering of amazing and unique musical objects, from mechanical machines to classical instruments, aims at illustrating the complex sequence of changes predicting the later dramatic shifts in art history, where the violin becomes a sculpture, where sound machine becomes a moving picture, where the unusual crossbreeding of different species indicates art experience. The exhibition gains real momentum with the 20th century; the horizons begin to spread unrestrainedly with an influx of absurd ideas of the historical avant-gardes—for example, Man Ray’s metronome with an eye measuring the efficiency of the author’s works, Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise characterized by the absence of sound, or Hommage à Paganini by Maurice Henry, who turned the violin into a wounded object. After the first examples of polysemy there follows the more intense mutual impact of music and visual art, and, based on more than fifty selected works, we learn about the history of modern art through the sound and figure—of, for example, the neo-Dadaist Nam June Paik, listening to the gramophone record through his mouth wide open, so as to experience sound as a materialized vibrating object; the pop artist Robert Rauschenberg with his installation of trash objects (a bath tub with a shower, a car door, a staircase, etc.), which, in combination with its own noises and sounds from radio stations, come to life in the urban environment; the conceptual work by Bruce Nauman, who closed the recording of a scream inside a concrete cube, thus restricting sound to silence; to the performance artist Laurie Anderson and her sound tables, which invite visitors to perceive sound through their own bodies. The final segment of the great feat in the Ca’ Corner palace is the selection of contemporary artists; we recognize the references to previous periods and authors, the development of new architectural and multisensory experiences, and the use of low-tech strategies. As a synthesis of the exhibition we will use the work by the Albanian artist Anri Sale, A Solo in the Doldrums (Based on an Unseen Dance by Siobhan Davies) from 2009. With ostensibly minimal measures, he achieved a sound environment in which music assumed shape. The artist established a very simple, poetic moment—in the quiet, dark room stands a drum, occasionally hit by drum sticks laying on it. This ascetic installation is driven by a complex synesthetic algorithm—the drum sticks are activated by the vibration of an inaudible low-frequency sound coming out of the speaker built into the lower part of the drum. This inaudible sound is the documented dance by the choreographer Siobhan Davies that was performed without any audience, only in front of a microphone. A Solo in the Doldrums (doldrums can be translated as listlessness, but it is also an expression for the area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm) is 8 minutes and 50 seconds of a pure synesthesia of feelings and art styles, a masterful exercise in overcoming absence. It is the moment the entire exhibition has been building up to!


The biggest surprise in the palace on the Canal Grande is the return to the source, the museum, an encyclopedic listing of knowledge. The museum display cases and artistic images of artifacts from the Renaissance and later centuries of musical awakening surprise us and fascinate us. In fact, we recognize the whole meaning and excellence of curatorial approach between the sound and the image, only in view of modern and contemporary art. Or, Boris Groys, the main theorist of strategies of contemporary art, put it: Since Duchamp we, at least, know that artistic practice primarily manifests itself not in the production of things, but in relation to things. Our relation to the art of the past thus creates the art of the present.