I haven’t been to a live gig where someone stood on stage and held up a bunch of paintings. But I’ve been to a frightening amount of galleries and museums which have grappled with the inverse: how to visualise the sonic, illustrate the musical, represent the aural. It’s possibly a doomed enterprise, though that’s no reason to either bemoan contemporary and experimental art’s fatal attraction to sound, or yearn for a utopia where audiovisual synaesthesia could be definitively described.
Yoshihide Otomo’s exhibition at ICC in Tokyo Between Music And Art simultaneously benefits from that institution’s contextual understanding of intermedial experiments in the arts, and contributes to the ongoing problematization of conjuring an aura of sound within the white cube. Indeed, the central piece of the exhibition, Quartets (2008, originally shown at the Yamaguchi Centre for Art & Media) sites a large constructed cube in the darkened gallery space, forcing visitors to walk around it, only ever able to see one side at a time. This cube is in fact four projected screens, each containing the silhouette of a performer skilfully coaxing delicate tones, dissonant murmurs and agitated paradiddles from their chosen instrument. Always one is watching a single performer while hearing an unobtrusive orchestration of four performances, controlled by the randomising functions of a computer mixing programme.
For Cagean ears, it will evoke the lowercase sound of chance in all its fawning quietude: a glistening tink here, a rotund plunk there. But I’ve always doubted that chance is viewed as an expressly liberating thing in Japanese music – especially considering the culture’s long history of microtonal pitch apparition and non-metric energy pulsing. Maybe Otomo is too polite to suggest this, but the ironically titled Quartets worked well as a declaration of his allegiance to open-ended musicianship and inter-relational listening. The performers’ silhouettes were like ectoplasmic residue of the audible live energy, i.e. the performed music. Additional wall projections carried abstract vibrational patterns related to close-up details of the instruments being performed, creating a live real-time visualization of the energies felt throughout the cubic space. This was not about artists or about sound, but about how people (call them musicians) go about making sound by erasing themselves in the process (hence the absent performers on screen).