VOLUME: BED OF SOUND
Henry Art Gallery, 15th Ave. N.E. at N.E. 41st, 543-2280; $8. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs. ends September 30
I’M AS LIKELY TO FIND ART on the ugly underbelly of an Iggy Pop song as I am to witness it hanging on a wall. I rarely even enter museums; instead I see art when the morning sunshine breaks into small pieces and fits inside the coat pockets of schoolchildren. I see it on old tree trunks and under the dirty fingernails of my favorite guitar players. I can sing a few lines of the Magnetic Fields song that mentions John Singer Sargent, yet I don’t even remember the name of the track, let alone the chapter on Sargent from my college art history class. But Henry Art Gallery’s Volume: Bed of Sound presents a unique opportunity for someone like me; the gallery’s latest installation allows even the most uninitiated the occasion to actually become part of the art.
The first thing I notice upon entering the extremely white space that envelops the huge, headphone-equipped bed is that there’s almost nothing to look at. The second is that that’s exactly the point. The bed stretches for over 60 feet and includes 58 sound stations. Despite its stark, ultraclean newness, coupled with the hushed hollow that always seems to shroud the art world, there is a clearly stated comfiness, a loud and clear invitation to lounge—and at an open space on the bed adjacent to a small, encased disc player marked with the tag “John Hudak, Don’t Worry About Anything, I’ll Talk to You Tomorrow,” that’s exactly what I commence doing. I lounge. Strangers lay alongside the best of friends in a tangle of bodies that reminds me of a PG-13 version of Spencer Tunick’s controversial nude photographic commentaries. The lofty white ceilings let in leftover sunlight, and although I remember walking down three flights of stairs, I imagine myself in the penthouse of a skyscraper. This is easy, I think: I’m interacting with art.
Nearly all of the 58 sound works available on the bed offer oblique auditory images rather than actual structured songs. A reworked, repetitive, and stripped- down rendition of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” by Beth Coleman vies with Sonic Youth’s “Tamra” for the uncoveted position of most songlike sound spot. And although I’ve gone in looking for music—my first reaction is to seek out those stations that offer “real” songs— it’s the absence of the song structure, that reliable verse-chorus-verse arrangement, that allows my mind to operate in open spaces. Some of the sound pieces are so aggressively minimalist and noise-spotted that it’s almost as if the listening isn’t important either. The art is stopping long enough to hear that which does not even require listening.
But Volume is more than an oversized pillow in a wooden frame and a bunch of contemporary aural experiments. Several smaller pieces are positioned within the space. Inside a walk-in-closet-sized rectangle, Susan Robb’s Sonitus Mirible Inventi (Sounds Magically Discovered) invites us to hear the murmurings of some unusual objects. Robb posits that all matter has its own secret language and uses the space to broadcast the brilliance of a fuzz ball’s vernacular. On the other side of the bed in a long, narrow room, Bill Fontana recaptures and redistributes the noises that we’ve forgotten to hear in Spatial Concept/Sound.
As I ascend the stairs and exit the gallery, I’m hit with the arias of chirping birds, the rush of the highway’s distant needs, the loud muffler of a ’76 Impala on 41st Street, the quiet breeze that my smile makes. Sound is the new sculpture and I am the latest patron of the arts.