Touchy Feely

By Chris Darke, 10 April 2000

Chris Darke reviews Audible Light at the MOMA, Oxford

Synæsthesia means what? Tasting colour, seeing sounds, hearing light; the experience of the senses overlapping, of the eye doing the work of the ear, and the ear that of the eye. If the keyword here is ‘overlap’, then Audible Light has taken this conceptual baton and run with it, commissioning a group of eight international artists who also moonlight as DJs, musicians, architects and designers to come up with six sound-and-light installation works. And while many of the works aim to give a kind of contemporary account of the synaesthetic event, the general aesthetic is sculpturally minimal, with the sound component of the works frequently predominating over light. In fact, the show might just have easily been – less snappily – entitled ‘Illuminating Sound’.

The synaesthetic event is, of course, physical. It’s the disordering of the ‘normal’ hierarchy of sense data, the unexpected conflation of sight, sound and touch. And the most successful of the works in Audible Light are those that push the physicality of the installation space to work towards achieving this, to make the allotted white cube pulse, or whisper, or shake. Carsten Nicolai (aka DJ Noto, an ex-landscape gardener from the GDR) pulls off the sweetest spatial metaphor of the show in his installation Atem (Breath). First shown in the recent Liverpool Biennial, it seems like it could have been the work that seeded the idea for Audible Light in the mind of curator Astrid Bowron. Nine speakers sunk into the floor emit different low levels of sound. In the corner of the room sit two small glass apothecaries’ vases half-filled with water that ripples in gentle disturbance – as did this visitor, who took away a distinct sense impression of this work that only later formed itself into a viable interpretation. Atem is a neat physicalisation of the space of the inner ear, the vases being the cochlea, with the floor itself carrying the wave patterns of the sounds from the speakers into one’s legs, bringing the other function of the inner ear – balance – into play. This, the most effective of the works in Audible Light, also made me realise that, for all their differing degrees of achievement, the works in the show could be transported wholesale and happily set down in the Natural History Museum where, with the regulation number of cross-disciplinary, science-meets-art catalogue essays, they would make a perfectly respectable exploration of synaesthesia for interested, interactivity-prone school-kids.

Chris Darke <chris AT>

Audible LightMuseum of Modern Art, Oxford23 January - 19 March 2000