November 23, 2004 - Centre Pompidou - Sons & Lumieres – A History of Sound in the Art of the 20th Century
November 23, 2004

Sons & Lumieres – A History of Sound in the Art of the 20th Century

Sons & Lumieres: A History of Sound in the Art of the 20th Century
22 September 2004 – 3 January 2005

Gallery 1, Level 6
75191 PARIS CEDEX 04
00 33 (0)1 44 78 12 33

“Sons & Lumieres” exhibition at the Centre Pompidou is the largest event devoted to the relationship between music / sound and 20th century art since the “Vom Klang der Bilder” show in Stuttgart In 1985.

In his poem Correspondances, Baudelaire wrote that “scents, colours, and sounds commune”, and the 20th century, often considered the era when the Arts converged and entered into dialogue, provides countless illustrations of this notion. After the rise of Abstraction around 1910 and painting’s strivings to commune with music – the abstract Art par excellence – the new electric media kept up the pursuit of this ancestral myth. Down through the century the arts of light, cinema and later video, were fertile ground for experiments in bringing image and sound together, while at the same time other approaches drew extensively on theories running counter to the possibility of any match between sight and hearing: using processes involving notions of chance, random noise and silence, new performance-art musical gambits challenged the “correspondences” ideal. To the question raised by the Romantics and then by the Symbolists – “Can images be translated into sound and vice-versa?” – the century came up with a host of different replies, some of them utopian and others emphasising the purest sensory pleasure.

The 2100 square metres of the Sons & Lumieres exhibition are divided into three areas, with over 400 works – many of them on show for the first time – providing an enormous range of sensory experiences and highlighting the crucial moments of the interaction between music/sound and the visual Arts.

The exhibition is built around three successive themes. The first of these themes -Correspondences, abstraction, colour music, light in motion – is the evolution of Baudelaire’s notion of “correspondences” within a form of pictorial abstraction drawn – as in the case of Kandinsky, the Synchromists and Klee – to the intangibility of music. Painting very early cut free of the fixed support, becoming temporally inflected colour in movement via Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine’s famous “optophonic piano” (an idea going back to the Baroque period), Viking Eggeling’s “scroll pictures”, Thomas Wilfred’s play with light, and other systems culminating in the early masterpieces of abstract cinema by Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and others.The abstract works presented in this first segment point up a quest for musical analogies that sometimes involved instrumental accompaniment. Their musical field of reference extends from the classical – Bach was an enduring model – to the avant-garde work of Arnold Schonberg and jazz and boogie-woogie as used by such artists as Stuart Davis and Piet Mondrian.

The second part of the exhibition – Imprints, conversions, syntheses, remanence – takes us into a markedly different world, where the notion of giving visible expression to sound – by transcription, imprint or conversion via the new technologies – makes sonic vibration one of the work’s raw materials. In the 1920s the cinema, newly endowed with the sound track, undertook the “photography of sound” to be found in the works of Rudolf Pfenninger and Norman McLaren. Photoelectric cells and oscilloscopes were put to work by artists like Raoul Hausmann and Ben Laposky in experiments with translation of sound into image. The Sixties and Seventies went deeper into the question: with the coming of the “environment” the work became a means of global perception that plunged the viewer into the actual physical experience of sound and light vibration. Drawing on a dreamlike suspension of consciousness, James and John Whitney, Brion Gysin, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Paul Sharits and other artists offered a meditative experience in which waves, whether of light or sound, shaped the vocabulary of a new audiovisual landscape open to the full gamut of sensory experience. By contrast other artists, for instance Bill Viola and Gary Hill pushed the energy and impact of acoustic pressure to the limits of what the senses could bear. At this time the idea of writing with sound was taken up – by Nam June Paik, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and others – in the first video works, which made bold play with interaction between sound and visual signals and pointed to the advent of new audiovisual languages.

The third segment of the exhibition – Ruptures, chance, noise, silence – takes the form of a questioning: via the Futurists “noise”, the work of John Cage, and the Fluxus movement, it focuses on the overall theme’s most iconoclastic aspects. Working from the jumbled, uneven textures of urban noise, Luigi Russolo offered a musical model that found tangible equivalents in collage and the tactility of matter, while Marcel Duchamp set about using the laws of chance to pare down compositional procedures. This dual vein would triumph in the tutelary figure of John Cage and in the 1960s with Fluxus, the latter advocating a philosophy of commitment in which the frontiers between art and life would be totally abolished. The works in this part of the exhibition bring real irony to their dismantling of the correspondences myth: chance and accident dictate interaction between the arts and lead in the final analysis to the experience of silence in the work of artists like Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman.

The exhibition concludes with two very recent installations, one by Rodney Graham and one by Pierre Huyghe, that hark back to ideas raised in the preceding sections. Firmly anchored in the 21st century, this epilogue leaves the way open to fresh interpretations.

Conception of the exhibition
Sophie Duplaix, curator of the exhibition
Marcella Lista, associate curator

Centre Pompidou
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