With New Gardner Exhibit, Visitors Explore the Sound of Art

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Gardner

In 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was the victim of an art heist that resulted in the loss of 13 precious works from the Dutch Room, marking the largest-value theft of private property in history.

Among the various pieces stolen was the The Concert, a work by Johannes Vermeer valued at over $200 million. As with all 13 stolen works, an empty frame resides in the original location of The Concert as a solemn reminder of the theft.

Although visitors no longer have the option of viewing The Concert in its original state, the museum has recently released a way for guests to experience the work in a completely novel fashion.

“Undertone,” the new installation, is a sonic evocation of Vermeer’s brush strokes. Situated right in front of the painting’s former location, the sound piece reconstructs The Concert in audio form, editing together sound clips and noises to depict the scene as it may have sounded back in Vermeer’s day. Standing in place, viewers hear the sounds of a large echoing concert hall, footsteps, a soft harpsichord, and faint opera singing all projected from a speaker 20 feet directly above them which simulates real life hearing.

“You listen to what you should be seeing,” museum staff Sarah Whitling said.

The piece was designed by Moritz Fehr—a German sound artist and experimental filmmaker—and serves as one of 10 total installations as part of the museum’s audio exhibition Listen Hear: The Art of Sound. The sound art exhibition, open from March 8 through Sept. 5, is the first of its kind and explores various forms of active listening, pushing the viewer—or in this case, the listener—to be attentive and more aware of how sound affects him or her.

Pieranna Cavalchini, the curator of the exhibition, explained that the exhibition “delves into acoustic mapping and real-time projections of sound across spaces.”  

Each of the 10 works, eight of which reside inside the museum with the remaining two set outdoors, find themselves situated in deliberately evocative spaces. Each installation is not a new work on its own, but rather an illumination of the qualities of the space in which it resides.

The courtyard, a green recess in the middle of the four-story museum, houses exotic plants and a running water fountain in efforts to recreate the museum as it was in its original state. In Gardner’s day, however, the courtyard also contained wildlife which completed the simulated experience of indoor nature.

And though the birds, frogs, insects are no longer a part of the contemporary experience for the safety of the artwork, viewers may once again experience their sounds. Newly installed surround-sound speakers in the courtyard play artist Lee Mingwei’s piece, “Small Conversation,” which features insect sounds and amphibian night calls, ranging from cicada noises to frog croaks, made up entirely by the artist’s own voice.

The exhibition extends as well to realms of abstract with the addition of Sublimated Music, a work that creates a sonic atmosphere out of notes from Claude Debussy’s Bells through the Leaves. Appropriately situated in the museum’s contemporary wing, a completely empty white gallery holds two rows of colored lamps, each color associated with a projected note.

On the church-high walls lie 56 speakers which play one note each in a predetermined choreography. The output is not melodic by design. Artist Philippe Rahm focuses on the deconstruction of sounds and only plays through one single line of the Debussy piece, over and over in hundreds of different ways.

According to Whitling, Rahm believes “the individual pieces are more interesting than the whole.”

Guests can listen to sounds of the inner city, cars, honks, the banging of construction, the embodied hustle bustle of pedestrians in Calderwood Hall, the museum’s concert hall which, unlike most of its kind, places the stage in the middle of the room, surrounded on all four sides by seats that go up four stories.

“The sounds that are played here are those that we typically try to shut out in places like concert halls,” Whitling said. “[Helen] Mirra wants to bring them into a place where people normally wouldn’t hear such noises.”

Listen Hear is a play on our typical approaches to spaces of art, an amalgamation of the act, hear, and the adverb, “in, at, or to this place or position.” It is an exhibit as much focused on the sounds experienced by the viewer, as it is on their preconceived ideas about space and time. Sound art, surprisingly to the uninitiated, is neither vague nor esoteric. Although to many, the only type of sonic art is music, Listen Hear reveals that what music cannot accomplish, noise can.

Featured Image by Gao Liu / Heights Staff

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