Tim Richardson shows how you can be up to your ears in art without leaving the home
So what’s an art lover to do during lockdown, with everything closed? I’m not convinced by all these worthy exhortations to “virtually visit” art galleries and museums. It’s not the same, is it?
But never fear – there are some kinds of art that you can experience to the full in the comfort of your own home, shed, bed, bath, lavatory or roof. Take sound art. This genre – which operates somewhere between music, poetry and film – became fashionable about a decade ago, when sound artist Susan Philipsz even won the Turner Prize (you can find a video of her affecting piece Lowlands on YouTube). Subsequently there were sound art exhibitions at Tate Modern and MOMA (New York) and now, no group show of artists is complete without a sound artist or two thrown in. Four British universities offer a postgraduate qualification in the subject or, if New York takes your fancy, you could always join the Sound Art Program at Columbia (that is, if you have $69,000 a year for the tuition fees).
Unlike video art, which is still more or less gallery-bound, many pieces of sound art can function perfectly well as pieces of audio that you can listen to, anywhere, on your computer or phone. Nevertheless, I’ve shied away from writing about sound art in this column up until now, as it’s not exactly flâneur-ish (though I suppose you can listen to it while walking along).
Yet the truth is, one of my favourite living artists is categorised as a sound artist, someone whose work seems to affect me more deeply than that of anyone else on the contemporary scene. Caroline Bergvall is a French-Norwegian artist based in London. She did her post-graduate work in England, notably at Dartington College in Devon, that great avant-garde educational institution which is sadly no longer what it once was. Bergvall has turned to her artistic advantage the fact that she finds herself caught between cultures, between languages and even between accents, for she sounds kind of Norwegian as well as French, with elements of London thrown in when she speaks in English.
Or rather intones. Her sound pieces are essentially text-based, and play with elements of slang, lost languages (Anglo-Saxon features strongly) and what are called minoritarian languages, like Romansh. Her work exists on the page as experimental poetry of the highest order, but I suspect it’s her performance style above all that has cemented her reputation and gained her a dedicated following. For Bergvall’s sound works have a quality of drama, and ritual, and barely constrained emotion about them. I don’t know what it is about her work, but I frequently end up in tears when I’m either listening to it, or reading it on the page. I suppose I am a “words person” and perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to her word revelries, her reverences, her reveries.
You can make up your own mind, perhaps, by listening to one (or more) of the generous excerpts from her work at carolinebergvall.com. Some of these function as performance pieces, and several of them are embedded as five-minute video clips in the site’s Performances section (click on Work, top right).
Drift (2012) exists both in illustrated book form and as a 75-minute performance piece with electronic text projection and live percussion. Nautical themes pervade Bergvall’s work, and this piece was inspired by the mysterious Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, which Ezra Pound (something of a sound-artist himself) translated back in 1911. The performance, and this video excerpt, features a central section of the piece/poem entitled Shake, with stanzas such as:
I started to shake
ok ok when I started to
scook push sharken churn
ok wander ok scacan
thats when I started to shake
This gives you a sense of the overall timbre of the piece, which mixes in slang and invented words in an essentially musical manner. Bergvall’s chanting, lyrical voice is extraordinary, like something from a different time and place, bringing to mind the calls of ancient mariners, 18th-century street-sellers or African tribal music. Now that I’m writing about it, a comparison with 1980s cult band the Cocteau Twins pops up, since they also used an invented vocabulary, though that has never occurred to me while actually listening to the piece. Oblique references to the plight of migrants trying to gain entry to Europe by sea make it still more piercing and affecting.
Alternatively, why not go off on and make the perfect dry martini? Here is my recipe:
1. Pour Beefeater gin over smoking-cold ice in large glass or metal shaker.
2. Bless with tiny splash of Noilly Prat vermouth.
3. Stir/mix vigorously with metal spoon for 30 seconds.
4. Strain into a pre-chilled martini glass.
5. Anoint limpid surface with moisture from chunk of squeezed lemon skin.
6. Garnish with thin lemon twist.
7. Sling computer out of window.
This is an edited version of a longer piece which appears in Idler 73, July/August 2020. Order post-free here