Silence as Art – The Art of Space

On a beautiful spring afternoon, a Sunday in Berkeley, California, we were only two of a total of five visitors in the Berkeley Art Museum * to see the exhibition Silence  (to April 28). The open space plan of the museum added to the sense of emptiness. All the fan-shaped galleries were visible, being on slowly rising levels from a central hub, like the steps of a spiral staircase. On one landing, a young man writhes silently on the floor, oblivious to passersby – speaking with his actions, perhaps.

Inspired by John Cage’s deeply spiritual (baffling to some) 1952 musical composition, 4’33″,  four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence,** the show is about silence and absence in 20th century art: from Giorgio de Chirico’s Melancholia (1916), a painting of a vacant and deserted cityscape, where buildings stand silent; to the ultimate silence implied in Warhol’s electric chair series of the 1960s. 

Concentrating on the diffused background instead of a single focal point is of course the theme of many artists’ work: Warhol’s Empire (1964) and Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage, 2000). Many have observed that this interest in the background is uniquely Asian (see my post here). But this show is proof that Americans and Europeans, at least the artists have long paid a lot of attention to the background and the interdependence of things – the connection between presence and absence.

The most poignant silence is in a gallery installed by the artist-musician Christian Marclay who, one would assume, makes sound. But instead he installed his own paintings about silence. One of them he placed side by side with Warhol’s electric chair. In it, he appropriated only a small rectangle from Warhol, the sign over the execution chamber door which reads SILENCE. [even].

There would of course be no music without space between sounds; nor there picture on a solid white or black canvas; or sculpture in a quarry marble. But when there is no fixed form or focal point of sound or picture, the ear and the eye turn inward – towards the unconscious and huge possibilities beckon. (Neurobiologists are finally finding the evolutionary substrate for this ***). Christian Marclay says:

My pieces are silent so that you can fill in the blank. I want people to use their memory, their own memory. Memory is our own recording device, so instead of imposing a standardized memory like a record, we have our own memories, which are more selective.

Lao Tse must have understood art when he said: The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…

* It is scheduled to move into a new space around 2016. I reviewed the new Diller Scofidio+Renfro design scheme here. 

** 4’33” has also warranted a place in Paris’ Musée de la Musique, the brain child of avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez, whose very own dissonant sound inspires anger and hatred in many traditionalist music lovers.

*** William James famously estimated that our unconscious controls 99% of our actions. And he is not exaggerating. Biologists have studied molecular messengers like insulin and endorphin and many others which silently maintain our body’s ‘steady state’, coordinating digestion, heartbeat, response to heat or cold, run from danger… These molecules, which permeate the body and reach every single cell, also record the trauma and other emotional memories from birth onward, and probably exceed our total synaptic connections in the nervous system by more than 1000-fold. See my post How Brainy Are We? Not Very  See also the vast, interconnected network of animal consciousness with which we share (even with octopuses) in the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

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