September 4, 2013  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Altered States of Sound

Cover of Soundings: A Contemporary Score, published by The Museum of Modern Art

The 16 artists featured in Soundings: A Contemporary Score treat sound as material. Much in the way many painters explore subjective interests through the material properties of paint and pigment, these artists manifest their philosophical and political concerns through sound (though not necessarily always audible). Sound art is a developing field, approached in myriad and often conflicting ways, so it does help to have some context. Curator Barbara London’s essay in the catalogue offers a historical introduction to the practice, followed by short exploratory texts by the show’s featured artists.

A sound and video installation featured in the exhibition, Jacob Kirkegaard’s piece AION—Ancient Greek for “infinity” or “eternity”—explores the legacy of the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster through sound. Kirkegaard discusses his relationship with sound in the catalogue:

“Perhaps only when I am unconscious do I experience silence. But when unconscious, I don’t listen. And the inaudible is not silence either. It is just sound that we don’t hear. My general interest is to create works that investigate exactly this—expanding our perception of the immediately inaudible, to go beyond ourselves and the sounds that surround us.”

Kirkegaard’s work invites the audience to listen when they normally wouldn’t in order to have a altered experience—of space, a moment in time, of anything.


Jacob Kirkegaard. AION. 2006. Sound and video installation. Installation view of Soundings: A Contemporary Score, August 10–November 3, 2013. © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar

For AION, Kirkegaard visited a pool, a gymnasium, a village church, and a music hall on the grounds of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, an evacuated area of an approximately 19-mile radius from the site of the disaster. Inspired by I Am Sitting in a Room, a groundbreaking sound work made by the experimental artist and composer Alvin Lucier, Kirkegaard began by placing a recording device inside the dilapidated rooms and making an audio recording of the basically imperceptible sound of the abandoned space. He then played the initial recording back into the room and recorded this layered effect again. He repeated this method several times in each room, the sonic results varying for each one. I spent the most time listening to the sounds of the pool space: a thick, slow drone, the dull accumulation of seeming silence. Kirkegaard also filmed and photographed the rooms, two of the photos are featured in the exhibition catalogue, and the video footage is paired with the recordings in the exhibition. The video shows flickers of movement and changing colors in the atmosphere of the locations. At points the color slowly drains from the footage as it turns into a sort of negative image. The combination of the sound with the footage is a sensorial, meditative trip, making for an entirely different experience of the spaces than could have been had without Kirkegaard’s intensive use of sound.

Soundings: A Contemporary Score is on view until November 3, in the third-floor Special Exhibitions Gallery.