Art In the Presence of Sound

While I was in Kansai for the FBI Festival, I dropped by the Osaka National Museum of Art to see Plus/Minus, an exhibition of work by Yukio Fujimoto, an artist whose conceptual pieces often use sound as a medium of expression. I had been meaning to visit the museum ever since I first saw a photo of its exterior, but scheduling conflicts always made it impossible. This time, with Festival FBI continuing its high-wire tradition of not providing sound checks to any of the artists (not out of cruelty, but merely due to the high number of artists and the low number of hours before opening time), I had the morning free and went down to the river to check out the building’s fantastic facade and the works contained inside. Glad I went.

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The Osaka National Museum of Art

Yukio Fujimoto, to quote Minoru Hatanaka’s essay on the artist that is published in the show’s catalog,

transforms the creative act of hearing into a work of art. In providing us with the chance to experience the surprise and joy of discovering sound, Fujimoto urges us to take an active approach with our ears. Although some of his works lack an aural component, even in these we find the presence of sound, sometimes as a trace or hint, or an idea that sometimes recalls sound. The works request our participation, and regardless of whether they deal with sound, we are free to approach or appreciate them in our own way after agreeing to participate in the interactive process.

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Fujimoto’s Delete (the Beatles)

Fujimoto is 57 years old this year but looks younger. His first exposure to electronic music and musique concrète was via his own naive experiments with a hand-me-down reel-to-reel tape recorder he had as a child. Around the age of twelve he discovered contemporary music via NHK’s Sunday afternoon series. He also became interested in rock, and especially fascinated by the Beatles. In the visual realm, he was particularly keen on experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas. After graduating from college he made electronic music via the traditional techniques of the seventies but abandoned them in favor of acoustic experiments when the digital age arrived. The Beatles are a strong iconographic presence in the exhibition. One piece, completely soundless, reproduces the actual Beatles LPs, labels and all, but with the grooves wiped clean. The title: Delete (the Beatles).

The flagship of the exhibition, +/-, stages 213 Wave® music system CD players in a huge grid, thirty meters square, on a far wall in a large high-ceilinged space. Why 213, I wondered? Here’s a quick photo, taken with my mobile phone on the fly, avoiding the guard stationed nearby. Sorry about the quality.

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+/-‘s 213 Wave® music system CD players

Upon entering, one is immediately aware of a wash of white noise that is eminating from the wall of machines. As one approaches, the mass of sound becomes louder, of course, but never oppressive (except perhaps for the guard assigned to the room, who I noted was wearing noise-reducing headphones—Bose, undoubtedly—and perhaps listening to some music of her own choosing). Only when one gets a foot or so from the sound source does one become aware that every player is in fact reproducing—softly—one of the 213 songs in the Beatles’s discography. A fascinating psycho-acoustic experience, as well as conceptual one. Again quoting Hatanaka,

The title of the work, “+/-“, alludes to the idea of adding and subtracting, and also suggests that adding equals subtracting. For example, by getting near the work and picking a favorite song to listen to from the 213 songs, we are subtracting the other 212. But by listening to all 213 songs at once we are hearing a single mixture that has been transformed into noise. Like the “aural Rorschach test” excercise that the American composer Pauline Oliveros proposes in her book Sound Mediations, we might also discover new patterns of sound within the white noise.

Altogether a very nice way to pass a morning in Osaka.

4 thoughts on “Art In the Presence of Sound

  1. rtanaka

    Seems like installation works are pretty popular nowadays — lot of modern and contemporary works utilized autonomous process as a way of generating material, but with the introduction of new technologies (video/audio looping, computers) a lot of it seems to have moved towards sound sculptures like the ones shown above. The interesting thing about it is that sounds are literally turned into an object by treating it in the manner of a painting or sculpture — sort of antithetical to the Eastern idea of impermanence, but it sort of provides a man-made ambiance that’s hard to replicate…like going into someone’s house, or in some cases, state of mind.

    I think the nice thing about these works is that the audience has a choice in how long they want to commit to it. It’s generally non-intrusive, and audience participation is largely voluntary. I’ve always wondered, though, what visual artists thought of these types of works since it’s seems like its encroaching on their turf. Maybe I should ask around.

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  2. carlstone

    Interesting points rtanaka.

    Other artists in japan who have worked between the boundaries of sound and sculpture include Akio Suzuki, Masayuki Akamatsu and Ryoji Ikeda Some of my students are exploring this territory as well.

    Overall I think that idea of turf is not, nor should not be an issue for those in the visual arts world. Sound artists like Fujimoto, Christian Marclay, Robin Rimbaud seem to have found considerable ratification there, each having had presentations in important galleries and museum around the world.

    davidcoll, I don’t think it is a reference to the Stockhausen system. If anything, in addition to what Hatanaka points out in his comments, it refers to the +/- buttons on a cd player, ipod remote et al.

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  3. pgblu

    Sound installations have brought people into the museum who would ordinarily have little interest in visual stimuli. So a painter or sculptor who frowns on this medium for potentially getting into their “turf” isn’t doing themselves any particular favors.

    Incidentally, I recommend to any composer the experience of creating sound installations — it forces one to think about the concepts of beginning, middle, and end in fundamentally different ways, and may help to overcome anxieties that one has about precisely these issues in finite music as well.

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