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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Son et Lumière

What’s not to like about James Turrell’s installation in the atrium of the Guggenheim? His reimaging of Frank Lloyd Wright’s soaring circular spiral into gauzy ellipses of changing light is just plain beautiful. It’s otherworldly with the stacked diminishing ovoid shapes seeming to lead to some kind of portal. 

When I arrived, just after the museum opened, it was a tremulous, glowing white and I couldn’t help but think of accounts of near death experiences. Later, as I was leaving, it had turned to lavender and then a trippy hot pink with the Ganzfeld effect in high gear. Blissed out visitors lay on mats on the floor or draped themselves on benches around the space—an installation all on its own—it’s always great watching New Yorkers wrested from their protective carapaces.

The rest of the show I found rather lacking, certainly not up to the high standards set by Suprasensorial Experiments in Light, Color, and Space.  Curated by Alma Ruiz, it originated at L.A. MOCA; I caught it at the Hirshhorn. That show featured work by Latin American artists (Carlos Cruz-Diez, Lucio Fontana, Julio Le Parc, Hélio Oiticica and Jesús Rafael Soto) who were working with light in innovative ways a decade before the Light and Space movement emerged in this country. That said, if I lived in New York, I would return a couple of times, at least, to see the atrium awash in different colors.

Up at The Cloisters, Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (2001) provides a nice aural counterpoint. A sound installation that comprises 40 high-fidelity speakers on stands positioned around the perimeter of the Cloisters’s Fuentidueña Chapel. Composed by Thomas Tallis possibly on the occasion of the 40th birthday of either Queen Elizabeth l or Mary Queen of Scots, the motet, Spem in alium numquam habui (c. 1573?), which translates as "In No Other Is My Hope," is one of Tallis's most famous compositions.

Standing at the center of the speakers, one is met with a wall of sound as the full effect of the polyphonic music is felt. Cardiff has referred to the piece as aural sculpture and one can feel exactly what she means. The words seem to fall away and one hears blocks of sound. Putting an ear up close to the speakers, one hears the individual voices—bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano—one part per speaker. It’s so clear it feels like the person is right there inside. The Fuentidueña Chapel, which features the late twelfth-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, provides the perfect setting and acoustics for the 14-minute piece that plays on a continuous loop.

Not to be outdone, MoMA has its own sound show: Soundings: A Contemporary Score. To me it was too pedantic, missing the magic that an artist like Cardiff is somehow able to capture. It reminded me of More Than Sound, an exhibit I saw last year at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm that focused on how music is being used and created within contemporary art through the work of nine artists. Interestingly, in both shows, though sound/music is the focus, a good deal of attention is directed at how the objects making the sound look (not a concern of Cardiff who is a pure aural artist). And here (at MoMA), as there (Bonniers Konsthall), I'm afraid that the very best part was the Op-Arty acoustical tiles on the wall.