Sound Full: Sound in Contemporary Australian and New Zealand Art, Dunedin public Art Gallery (7 July – 12 November, 2012)

A silhouette of person in front of a white, mushroom structure.

Joyce Hinterding and David Haines – Monocline: Black Boxes (2011-2012)

As film, video and digital media have infiltrated public art galleries, we have come to expect certain familiar experiences with sound in gallery spaces. Audio accompanies looped footage on plasma screens, headsets dangle from gallery walls, and surround sound envelops visitors in darkened screening rooms. These cues and arrangements encourage us to think of sound as something added to gallery spaces, often through technologies – something emitted from contemporary art to accompany the visual.

Caleb Kelly and Aaron Kreisler – curators of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery exhibition Sound Full – want to emphasise how sound is already present in contemporary art before the speakers are turned on. Sound Full  draws together sixteen Australian and New Zealand artists working with various aspects of ‘sound’. The exhibition aims to get gallery-goers thinking about the multi-modal sensory experiences involved when we engage with works of art. By broadening our understandings of sound in contemporary art, Kelly and Kreisler assure us, “we are able to hear and in turn think about sound as no longer divorced from our vision”.

Sound Full encompasses a trail of thirteen artworks – from film, painting and photography, to software, sculpture, installation and performance – spread throughout DPAG. The exhibition seems intent on creating a wide range of experiences played out within vastly different settings. Artworks are presented in environments public and private, intimate and exposed. Sound Full mixes the live and recorded, analogue and digital, and confronts visitors with sounds comforting, unsettling and aggravating, along with works that are mute yet reference sound. While many artworks are crowd-pleasers, Sound Full often pushes visitors out of their comfort zone.

Sound Full initiates visitors through a series of death metal screams as they approach the DPAG front doors, and passersby in Dunedin’s Octagon are caught in the crossfire. The sound is Volitional Bus (2010) by Australian artist Kusum Normoyle. Kusum works with electronic and scream noise for both performance and installation, and outside speakers play audio of her screaming into a microphone in ways even a metal-head wouldn’t dare; exploiting feedback and amplification to deliver a hard-and-fast vocal assault. Screens installed in the gallery’s front windows show accompanying video footage of the artist flailing around like a heavy metal singer. She performs against two equally noisy backdrops: in the flush median between two lanes of rush-hour traffic, and on top of a rugged-looking mountainscape where she battles seemingly gale-force winds. Volitional Bus disrupts and displaces – both the public space outside DPAG and everyday representations of how the female body and voice behave. Rather than an artwork displayed to entice the public into the gallery, Volitional Bus is an intervention.

Kusum Normoyle performs at the opening of Sound Full at Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Inside, the DPAG is noisier than usual thanks to electronic birdsong ringing through the upstairs exhibition spaces. Sound Full’s first exhibition space confronts us with Eugene Hansen, Jenny Gilliam and Dr. Kron’s Future Calls the Dawn Contagion (2012). The installation is concerned with bird flu contagion, and a high-volume, high-pitched chorus of electronic bird alarm clocks are used to get the message across. Like Kusum’s work, Future Calls the Dawn Contagion plays with unbearable noise, yet the alarms repeating the installation’s clear-cut message are more mind-numbing irritant than sonic intervention. The main effect of the work is an immediate sense of sympathy for the gallery guides who attend the space.

In the same area, artists explore the crossover between musicianship and contemporary art, and the fantastical potential of music and sound. Michael Morley, who is also a member of the Dunedin noise rock trio the Dead C, presents a collection of paintings where abstract shapes, clashing colours and use of scale evoke discord, volume and psychedelia. A large table is set up in the middle of the room where Australian artist Vicki Browne invites visitors to talk to pot plants. Browne’s installation combines new age fancy with a sense of humour – hundreds of twigs are painstakingly hot glued over microphones and other present-day audio technology, and visitors can stand inside a gold geometric shape dangling from the ceiling to hear the murmurs of plants ‘talking’.

Torben Tilly and Robin Watkins create a suspended moment in time in an adjoining gallery space. A tiny monitor plays a fuzzy black and white rock ’n’ roll performance. The footage is so tightly looped it appears to pulse strangely, while a chair with two of its legs cut off looks as if it has sunk into the gallery floor. The strange scene is accompanied by an audio track of Grant Tilly reading from J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment With Time. The overall effect is a doomed sense of nostalgia – almost as if we are inside the head of an obsessive music fan fixated on a split second of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Downstairs, Joyce Hinterding and David Haines’ Monocline: Black Boxes (2011-2012) brings the possibilities of interactive gaming technology to an intimate exhibition space tucked away from the main gallery. In Monocline: Black Boxes, visitors can stand in front of a double projection screen and move their bodies to navigate through a digital landscape of white fungus-like lattices in first person perspective. The scale and abstraction of the HD projection and its calming soundtrack creates an immersive experience – a contrast to the usual splay of bullets and pursue-and-kill mentality pervasive throughout gaming culture. Monocline: Black Boxes appears to attract more people than any other work in Sound Full, perhaps through the novelty value of interactive technology or it’s friendliness compared to works like Kusum’s. Yet Hinterding and Haine’s work is more than novelty or crowd-pleaser; it allows us to appreciate the gaming engine as an artistic medium and virtual environments as objects of beauty and contemplation.

Sound Full is not overall as physically noisy or chaotic as expected (with the exception of Kusum and Hansen, Gilliam and Kron’s artworks) – yet emphasises the significance of sound already present in contemporary art. The ‘sound’ of the exhibition aggravates us, disrupts and displaces our expectations in and out of gallery spaces and creates fun, fantasy and contemplation. Sound Full also pays attention to the crossover between music and contemporary art. The lasting effect of Sound Full is not a ringing in our ears, but an acute awareness of the different sensory experiences we encounter when experiencing contemporary art. The exhibition reminds us to listen in gallery spaces – whether to a silent object or something violently expelled from an artist’s lungs.