Reviewing The Making of Soundscapes

By Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

The Sackler Research Forum conversation between Dr Minna Moore Ede, curator of Soundscapes at the National Gallery, and Dr Irene Noy (the Courtauld Institute of Art) was an epilogue to the exhibition shown at the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing between 8 July and 6 September 2015. Comprising of only six paintings from the collection, six sound artists from different musical genres (Chris Watson, Susan Philipsz, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Nico Muhly, Gabriel Yared, Jamie XX) composed their own interpretations of the works. The musical and visual pieces were presented together, each in their own room.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), The National Gallery, London.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), The National Gallery, London.

Having been impressed by the way sounds can enhance visual experiences in the exhibition, it was interesting to see the paintings and ‘their sounds’ in short clips at the talk, accompanied by the noises from the street below. Revisiting the works in this manner underlined just how location-specific Soundscapes was and that, even though we could see the same pieces and hear the same sounds, it was a filtered experience this time. And no wonder: each artist could choose a sound equipment to fit their work best, so that the idea of ‘seeing music’ and ‘hearing painting’ was tailored specifically to how they wanted it to be perceived at the exhibition. For example, Chris Watson, who composed a piece of natural sounds for Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele, insisted that the volume of his piece should not exceed natural sound levels. This meant that visitors had to take some time to adjust hearing the quiet sounds of Watson’s piece after entering the exhibition space. For someone not used to listening actively, Minna Moore Ede admitted, this may have presented a challenge, especially as Watson’s room was the first one in the exhibition.

It was particularly interesting to hear how the artists prepared for the exhibition: Jamie XX, for instance, could only finalise his work at the gallery, an interpretation of Théo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene, shortly before the show opened by working through the night. The curator gave credit to the young popular artist, whose participation could easily be seen as a gimmick to draw in a younger audience: all the artists, including Jamie XX, shared an interest in the connection between visual arts and sound. As perhaps expected, the painting were very carefully chosen by the artists to present us with a variety of compositions that intensely engaged with ‘their aural paintings’.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene (about 1892) The National Gallery, London.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene (about 1892) The National Gallery, London.

As, Minna Moore Ede admitted, Soundscapes had a non-traditional form of curation and was very much an experiment, particularly because it had to fit within the National Gallery’s programme. Considering some responses from the press, the project was not all too well received. However, she noticed a generational divide in the reception: younger viewers, more used to experiencing active combinations of sound and vision, reacted much more positively than an older audience. In relation to this mixed result, the curator also found that the categorization of art (for example into painting, music, and performance) is still something deeply ingrained into the expectations of a British audience. While this may be true, it seemed that much of the scepticism with the ‘mixing of artistic genres’ was based on Soundscapes being a show at the National Gallery. As such, the most difficult challenge of curating the exhibition was its link to the gallery, which, as a national institution, brought with it a very particular set of expectations from an audience used to seeing ‘conventional’ shows with a focus on visual artworks. The changing of this format by removing all but one work in each room and adding a corresponding piece of sound art was thus a new concept. And yet, Minna Moore Ede argued, this emphasis on the non-traditional reanimated the pieces in a ‘non-traditional art historical manner’ – a risk worth taking in the face of all the scepticism it caused: it enabled us to see familiar paintings in a new light, even though their interpretations were not necessarily our own.

The curator of Soundscapes wants the exhibition to travel in the future, and it will be interesting to see whether removing it from the site-specific context of the National Gallery will change the way it is received. The crux of the show was that it was something new, not as an exhibition format, but in the specific context of the National Gallery. Unsurprisingly maybe, this novelty factor also brought home some criticism. Yet, as the conversation with Minna Moore Ede has shown, curators like her connect the gallery’s collection with contemporary culture and a younger audience. As such, Soundscapes, as conceived by its curator, may well start to break down the boundaries between the different categories of art even in an institution like the National Gallery, one exhibition at a time.