All sounds can be music, American composer John Cage asserted, but what is the difference between “sound art” and music? One argument is that installed sound environments are defined by the acoustic space they create: that is, they are sculptures with a sound-producing function. On the opening weekend of Sound Full at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the distinction became a little blurred as artists took to their synthesisers and noise-samplers to stage a mini-sonic circus over two nights. The best of these real-time events was provided by Phil Dadson, with his “song stones”, assisted by Michael Morley wielding chunks of rock. Coddling selected stones with his hands, Dadson indeed made them sing, amplifying their resonances with microphones and delay pedals. He sloshed pebbles slung inside a blue lavalava around a water-filled bucket; between them, he and Morley, scraping and grinding and tapping, seemed to transport you to the wind-swept isolation of the Kermadec Islands, haunted by bird cries and the sigh of the ocean. It was sharp, alert, alive. By contrast, other soundscapers, dialling up the performance, chose to pummel your eardrums with off-the-shelf noodling and thrumming that peaked as slabs of noise, sliced and diced.
Dadson’s gallery installation, likewise, presents a journey, beginning at an airport and finishing in China. This digital video, Between Worlds (2011), offers the sensation of travelling as tourist luggage – along a conveyor belt, then flung through the air, and ending upside down in a canoe drifting through a mangrove swamp, before fetching up in a crowded thoroughfare, being scrutinised by the passing throng. Filmed using mirrors and devices concealed in headgear and the like, it offers the disorientating experience of a reflected otherworld, with the camera a kind of canoe prow, a fixed point in a field of fractured light and water and moving shadows. The soundtrack is a susurrus, or scratch orchestra, of grace-notes: breath, flute, birdsong, children’s distant cries and the sound of river water plashing. Morley, a crossover artist better known as a musician with the Dead C, offers pop art-style paintings in lieu of sound: these simple geometrical wall works represent a response to “listening”. Next door to his silence is a sophisticated interactive video by Australians David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, in which sensors respond to your body language, your “conducting”, in the form of large latticed spheres swirling and bouncing like soap bubbles on a giant split-screen – with the implication that this is a fantastic journey through an enlarged abstract representation of the human body’s bloodstream, galvanised by the accompanying soundtrack.
Magnified imagery is also provided by Melburnian Marco Fusinato, who seeks, like Morley, to represent aural textures with just a picture. The size of a motorway-advertising billboard, Fusinato’s wall mural is a grainy newspaper photograph showing a provocateur hurling a brick during a political demonstration. Blown up to bombastic size, this monument to the unknown rioter is at once vertiginous and ridiculous. We see the crowd chanting, flares going off, a car burning fiercely, but we do not hear it. Instead, zeroing in on the visual oomph of the urban warrior, the artist amplifies non-specific disaffection, where this angry street theatre speaks to our own moment’s political, social and economic turmoil.The dissolution of the media image into a mesh of dots has caged the spectacle, turned it into an art-historical quotation – and into a sardonic joke. Other works of prophecy and warning choose the cute approach.
The trio of Eugene Hansen, Jenny Gilliam and Dr Kron wire 12 bird alarm clocks to a wall, all timed to go off at exactly midday for an hour. Said to be about bird-flu “contagion”, these otherwise innocuous metal knick-knacks begin to tweet like there’s no tomorrow, their loud presence for a moment echoing the twittering menace in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds – but the illusion’s fleeting. Vicky Browne offers an installation in which gallery-goers are encouraged to use microphones to talk to pot plants placed on a garden table; and there is also a “golden pod” listening station attached, through which can be heard the kind of music plants might make if they were musical: a dreamy New Age burbling. Piped muzak surrounds us these days, its sugary content high. Aspects of Sound Full, its bleeds and sizzles of white noise channelled between rudimentary acoustic mufflers and bafflers so you seem to float from exhibit to exhibit in a murk of echoes and counter-echoes, constitute a mock-commentary on the shopping mall ambience of daily life. Sound Full, in essence, seeks to be unsettling, discombobulating.
Michael Graeve replays the hum of suburban living rooms in solemn fashion: that is, he provides bass drones, filtering out of op-shop 70s speakers as if animating the ghost in the machine of sound-systems past. His empty stage-set scenarios are complemented by Robin Fox’s pinging oscilloscope, translating digital noise into mandalas of wave patterns. These squiggles evoke submolecular movement, as if deeper rhythms of the universe have been translated into an optic register. Space-age consciousness takes on a different aspect in Brent Grayburn’s four-sided video work, which, like the neighbouring installation by Torben Tilly and Robin Watkins, entertains a kind of drug-fuelled diabolism, reminding us how closely music is associated with out-of-body states of mind. Kusum Normoyle, however, gets closer to that unholy grail with her aural acupuncture, using just her voice and microphone feedback in short piercing bursts, live on the opening night, and then in her two-part Volitional Bus (2010). Her banshee wails and shamanistic shouts are an athletic shriekback, sculpting reductive vocals into weird vibrations. Equally exciting is Thembi Soddell’s mysterious closet into which you crawl then crouch, foetal-like, in total darkness, to be bathed in evocative sounds: the rumble of an earthquake, thunderclaps, temple bells, pistol shots, the clacking of typewriter keys as of some driven beat poet, and all melding with noises unknown, but possessing a startling, even hallucinatory, intensity.
SOUND FULL: SOUND IN CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN AND NEW ZEALAND ART, curated by Caleb Kelly and Aaron Kreisler, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, until November 11.