Berkeley: BAM/PFA exhibit examines sound of 'Silence'
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Shriek and holler all you like, but no amount of noise will muffle the overpowering roar of thoughts provoked by "Silence," a vexingly simple exhibit that opened this week and runs through April 28 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Co-organized by BAM/PFA and Houston's Menil Collection, the exhibit uses composer John Cage's multi-channeled life as a pioneer visionary and his groundbreaking composition "4'33" " as the linchpins for wide-ranging, artistic enterprise. Cage's 1952, three-movement, no-music-except-ambient-sound composition rocketed the artist to contemporary art superstar status.
"Silence" includes paintings, sculpture, performance art, films, lectures, L@TE: Friday Nights performances, extended learning courses and even public meditation sessions.
On a press preview tour, curator Lucinda Barnes understated the project, saying, "Silence has a big presence in the museum."
Menil curator Toby Camps praised BAM's "sympathetic dedication to silence" and offered a provocative, introductory comment: "Everybody has noise within."
Zig-zagging up the concrete ramps of BAM, visitors will first pass through a gallery of golden Buddhas in the "Himalayan Pilgrimage" exhibit, then catch glimpses of Rudolph de Crignis' tidy, blue-squared canvases in his solo show, "Matrix 245."
This quiet, meditative suggestiveness is the perfect setup for the first "Silence" gallery, which instantly confronts and explodes expectations.
Robert Rauschenberg's "White Painting (Two Panel)" (1951), the inspiration for 4'33", makes its ironically imposing mark on the gallery's bleached, white walls.
Joseph Beuys' "Noiseless Blackboard Eraser," encased in plexiglass and bearing the mysterious stamp "organization for Direct Democracy," sets off a noiseless flurry of possible explanations.
And René Magritte's better-recognized work, with apple-stuffed room and luminescent streetlight, implicates the deeper sonorities of dreams and fantasies.
It's true, silence is beautiful, slippery stuff.
A sliced, human head, sandwiched between wooden boards in Mark Manders' "Reduced Summer Garden Night Scene (Reduced to 88%)," rests on the nonsensical, mixed-up-words newspaper he created.
A cacophony of sound seeps from "Box with the Sound of Its Own Making." Descriptively titled by artist Robert Morris, the boxy, 10" by 10" wooden sculpture plays a recording made during its construction.
An autobiography by an inanimate object would surely have pleased Cage's "There is no such thing as silence or empty space or empty time" sensibilities.
Stephen Vitiello, on hand to introduce the Berkeley version of his Menil construction, "Light Readings," is geared for noise-making. Pacing in front of wall-mounted speakers and photocells, his movement is captured and results in a gorgeous, xylophonic cascade of sound.
Movement is also central to Tino Sehgal's performance piece. Set against the backdrop of an unadorned wall, a solo dancer rolls incrementally. Working in shifts, new dancers replace the previous performer's endlessly unfurling motion, but leave an overall impression of inertia, even stasis. The exhibit explores not just surreal and symbolic silence, but suffocating and enforced silence.
"Untitled," Doris Salcedo's cement-fronted wardrobe, slammed by an inverted chest of drawers, suggests muted force.
Tehching Hsieh's haunting, gelatin silver prints are both pun and something close to artistic perversion: locking himself in a cage for a full year, he denied himself conversation, reading, electronic input and human interaction. More than anything, observing his work draws commentary: "How could anyone do such a thing?"
Video curator Steve Seid has compiled a sizable roster of films addressing silence and sound to extend the exhibit's scope. Visual noise, synthesized scores, ambient-source soundtracks and silent films trace ecological, religious, philosophical and cultural impulses in cinematic history.
"Silence" casts an unlikely spell on a visitor. Expecting emptiness or whispers, this striking collection of work shouts, echoes, and rings the clarion bell of Cage's original, mind-boggling, noise-inducing vision.