A visually rich audio festival

Adam Jasper at Berlin’s Sonambiente

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/2/256_jaspersmith_cardiff.jpg" alt="Janet Cardiff & Georges Bures Miller,
Opera for a Small Room 2005 “>

Janet Cardiff & Georges Bures Miller,
Opera for a Small Room 2005

Janet Cardiff & Georges Bures Miller,
Opera for a Small Room 2005

The precinct surrounding Brandenburger Tor looks a mess, as always. It’s not a giant building site anymore, but Adidas has, in compensation, installed a giant football directly in front of the ungainly monument and the square is seething with the same tourist crowd (wearing their Goretex jackets, bumbags and disorientation like a uniform) who populate the centre of every major city.

Directly to the left of the mammoth ball is the gleaming glass facade of Günter Behnisch’s new Akademie der Kunste, the main exhibition space for Berlin’s second Sonambiente. The first was organised by Christian Kneisel 10 years ago to mark the 300th anniversary of the Akademie and attracted diverse luminaries from Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno to Nam June Paik. The resuscitation of the festival by his assistant, Matthias Osterwold, coincides with the rather less solemn occasion of the World Cup, and perhaps has trouble competing with the mega event (in spite of this year’s lineup including Pipilotti Rist, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller).

The 2006 festival features some 40 international artists as well as the work of 20 students from the Akademie itself, and is spread across 5 major venues alongside a host of ancillary facilities, from subway stations to glass recycling bins. It’s an ambitious festival, and one that takes the architectural fragmentation of the city as a core theme, which goes some way to explaining how visually rich this audio festival is.

It’s the hungover day after opening night, and out of a doorway that we cannot directly see through emerges snatches of opera, fragments of a voice. We’re at the entrance to Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s enormously impressive installation Opera for a Small Room. Inside stands an unmarked wooden box, reminiscent of a shipping container, set at an angle to the walls. Light streams out from windows cut into all 4 sides, and on closer approach we see that this little house is packed: crammed with old records, faded Turkish rugs, dented school furniture, 8 record players, a crooked chandelier and an empty chair sitting in the middle of all this comfortable chaos.

The chair looks recently vacated, so it is faintly unnerving when the arm of a record player swings of its own volition and plays an aria from an Italian opera that sounds familiar. A north American voice growls over the song, “she was walking down the road with her shoes in her hands… where the fuck was she going?” and from that moment on we’re lost, mesmerised, nailed. From 24 antique speakers littering the room and jutting out from the walls a story unfolds in stops and starts—made up from fragments of opera, waves of orchestral music, footsteps, pop songs and the corruscatingly lonely voice. It’s as much theatre as installation, a radio play built into a museum diorama. Our ears adjust to the low fidelity vinyl played through horn speakers, the voice mumbling from a space only a few feet in front of us, so that we are delightfully confused when the precise and vivid sound of a rainstorm breaks over our heads. Involuntarily I step back and look up to see if it is not, in fact, raining on the roof of the gallery, only to glimpse high definition speakers bolted up on the walls. It’s a clever trick that plays on suspension of disbelief: the mistake is that assuming “everything here in this box is not real” implies that “everything not in this box is real.” But the finesse of the piece is not merely technical.

The power of illusion that Cardiff and Miller’s work carries is set off by their rich sense of narrative and association. Their art verges on filmmaking, as Atom Egoyan once observed during an interview with Cardiff (www.bombsite.com/cardiff/cardiff.html), and this piece is driven by a few biographical fragments, real and imagined, about R Dennehy, a man who collected records. The immediate sensuality of the work—you can smell the dust on the carpet—is a relief after all the snap, crackle and abstracted pop of the Rice Krispy theorists that one sometimes associates with experimental sound art.

Another sort of memorial to an absent figure is constructed by the Adelaide born artist Jo Dudley, whose Tom’s Song was installed in what looks remarkably like an indoor basketball court in the now vacant Polish Embassy on Unter den Linden. As in the work by Cardiff and Miller, we are presented with a blank wooden box standing at the centre of the room, although higher and narrower, more like a coffin for an elephant than a garden shed. Inside, on the floor, are 16 record players arranged geometrically. The space can be traversed via a raised walkway, and above hangs a similar arrangement of simple music boxes fed by punched paper scrolls. The entire structure has been delicately synchronised to perform as a giant music box a croaky and dulcet love song originally recorded by the artist’s grandfather, who sings “It’s June in January because I’m in love.” There’s something inherently creepy about those lyrics when we know that the dead man’s song was recorded in the southern hemisphere, probably in the suburbs of Melbourne, but in Berlin the covertly morbid implication is contradicted by the high summer outside the gallery. Instead of really listening to the lyrics, we find ourselves sort of fascinated by the precision with which the voice flutters first from one corner of the room to another, and the tidiness with which the various simple analogue instruments are orchestrated with each other, although the illusion of rudimentary technology is dispelled when we learn that the entire system is computer controlled and the music boxes are fitted with optical sensors.

Skip forward a couple of days to the launch of Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani’s new films to a packed audience at the Volksbühne on Rosa Luxemburg Platz.

In 1956, Alain Resnais made a short film on the Bibliothèque Nationale, a loving architectural homage to the building as reservoir of all the knowledge in the world, as an archive and simultaneously as a sort of power station driven by thoughts. Fifty years on, Fischer and el Sani show a split screen film of the same building. Now, due to the relocation of the collection, it’s an abandoned space as thoroughly decommissioned as Battersea Powerstation, and queerly reminiscent of it. There’s a melancholy to the slow dolly shots that scan ranks of unoccupied desks and empty bookshelves, sharpened by Patrick Catani’s (who has collaborated in the past with Sydney’s System Corrupt) haunting soundtrack, that buzzes and blisters across the room like a geiger counter accompanying a picnic in Chernobyl. The film is more like the documentation of an abandoned space station than an institutional critique in the style of Candida Höfer, and so in hindsight it should have been no surprise to see this work paired with a recreation of the most famous scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), this time shot in an abandoned radio hall in East Berlin, and accompanied by live music by Robert Lippok and Johann von Schubert.

In spite of the extraordinary strength of these works, along with persuasive installations by Kris Vleschouwer, Julian Rosefeldt and Candice Breitz, there is an impression that the festival lacks the depth and breadth of its forerunner a decade ago. Pippilotti Rist’s musical collaboration with Gudrun Gut seems haphazardly installed, as if the artist didn’t have the time to carry out the installation herself; Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s work had already been exhibited as a solo show at Kunsthaus Bregrenz in 2005. And there were some dubious curatorial decisions—such as the wall of footballs that vainly tried to tie the exhibition in to the frenzy of the World Cup.

Sonambiente Berlin 2006, directors Matthias Osterwold, Georg Weckwerth; Akademie der Kunste and other venues, Berlin, June 1-16, www.sonambiente.net

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 49

© Adam Jasper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006