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Soundtracks (for an) Exhibition

MARK SHEERIN: Art is getting noisier. Galleries echo with moving image installations. The quieter ones provide you with audio-guides. Sound is now such a vital dimension of art, some artists are making art about that very phenomenon.

In a boxlike construction at Ikon in Birmingham, you can pull up a beanbag and enjoy some music. On a giant screen ahead a retro turntable plays a selection of vinyl LPs. It reconstructs the type of experience you might have at home, yet you are sat in a sculpture.


This is Soundtrack for an Exhibition (2000-) by conceptual artist Ron Terada. It features a selection of his favourite tunes from the last ten years and celebrates his first major show in Europe. Pavement, The Magnetic Fields and The Walkmen are among the bands included.


Curator Helen Legg explains the popularity of the work: “Ron likes making mix tapes and people like having mix tapes made for them . . . so people are working out whether there is a narrative to the work.” This particular mix tape has also been pressed up as a free record that gallery goers can take home with them.


The melancholy tunes can be heard throughout the exhibition, and it should be mentioned that this show is called "Who I Think I Am". This personal selection of music seems a direct way of getting to know the artist, or is it?


“I think that Ron is very smart guy,” says Legg. “He's very self aware, so the music is both the kind of music he would listen to - they are his favourite songs quite genuinely - but he is also very aware of impression they give of him, so that's why the show is a self portrait and the music too.”


Either way, Terada has good taste, which makes this a contender for the best sounding show of the year. It makes you wonder why so much art is still looked at in silence.


“I think its just a cultural habit, which I guess comes from the history of exhibition making and the way museums and galleries have operated historically,” explains Legg. “But I think with moving images becoming more prevalent within galleries that's starting to be challenged and fade away. I think curators are increasingly becoming aware of the uses of sound, and artists too.”


Not content with soundtracks, many creative arts shows are now developing audiovisual idents. A recent example can be found at Life in 2050 at Proud Central in London.


Most of the work in the future-focussed exhibition, which runs in support of the 9th Sci-Fi London Film Festival, is comprised of relatively quiet illustration, photography and design. So the ident, projected from the mouth of a sculptural robot onto the white wall, sets the atmospheric tone.


Visually, it is a code-generated animation, which appears to map the evolution and dissolution of an entire world. It is abstract, cerebral and, like the Terada piece, hypnotic. Meanwhile the ambient techno backing provides an unofficial soundtrack to your visit and indeed the entire film festival.


Creative Director Andrew Jones and his agency Future Deluxe set out to find music that could bear repeated listening. “Some of the first pieces we looked at were quite electronic and quite structured, with too much emphasis on the beat, but when we heard Quadrant 3 [by Harmonic 313], it matched the animations because you could keep listening to it again and again,” he explains.


Jones says that in the world of digital arts, it is now standard practice to develop an ident: “In terms of promotion and the online element it works very well, getting people talking about it, building up a bit of hype before the exhibition starts.”


Yet he admits there is a historical precedence for silence before the work of art. “There's definitely some things that are carried forward from the past with art galleries. There is I think an element of 'That's how we do things in an art gallery, because that's how we've always done it.'”


“I don't know why,” he adds. “I don't agree with it.” And as he demonstrates, shows with added music leave a powerful impression. Anyone might come round to Jones' way of thinking.

...
Ron Terada's "Who I Think I Am", of which Soundtrack for an Exhibition is one component, is now exhibiting at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until 16th May, 2010. http://www.ikon-gallery.co.uk/programme/current/event/363/who_i_think_i_am/

[Main image credit: Ron Terada, Soundtrack for an Exhibition, video still. Courtesy of Ikon]

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