Five Transversal Artists Bridging the Gap Between Sight and Sound

Christine Sun Kim -  Too Much Future , Image courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

Christine Sun Kim - Too Much Future, Image courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

The contemporary art scene is saturated with creative minds who dabble in mixed media and explore several facets of visual art. Most artists, however, specialize in one field and work on refining a specific set of skills. But some brave artists have trained themselves in multiple disciplines, incorporating elements of sight and sound to produce multimedia installation. In cities like Berlin, sound artists already play a key role in the contemporary art scene. Interdisciplinary artists possess the potential to create a sensory experience that reaches depths visual art alone cannot achieve. The artists mentioned below come from very different backgrounds and fields of study, but all their works prove that artists can successfully work in multiple disciplines, experiment with multi-sensory projects, and find a place in the world of contemporary art.

Carsten Nicolai

Born in 1965 in Karl-Marx-Stadt and currently based in Berlin, Carsten Nicolai explores optical sound by converting light frequencies into sound waves. He views his work as scientific and experimental, and he uses mathematical patterns to create multi-sensory art installations that supersede the ways in which humans perceive senses like sight and sound separately. 

His 2017 mixed media installation, autonomo, consisted of nine large bell plates hanging in a warehouse space, and a tennis ball machine that shot 200 balls at the plates at random intervals. The autonomous tennis ball machine created a musical score constantly in flux, depending on the frequency of the machine’s output, the angle in which the balls made contact with the plates, and the ways in which the sound of the plates interacted with the space’s acoustics.

Nicolai also records music under the pseudonym Alva Noto. He contributed to The Revenant film score, and most recently released an album, titled Unieqav, in March, 2018.

Christine Sun Kim

Christine Sun Kim is a New York City-based artist who incorporates sound into her work in unconventional ways. For someone who focuses much of her work on sound, Kim has actually been deaf since birth. In fact, the “sound” element in most of her pieces can not technically be perceived audibly at all. Instead, she creates visual art out of sheet music, and she often interchanges musical notes and symbols with American Sign Language in order to convey the similarities between the two, as well as how hearing impaired people perceive sound.

In her 2017 exhibit, The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics, Kim explored the notion of sound being its own object separate from the materials from which the sound originated. For Kim, sound only exists once it has been acknowledged by an interpreter and translated into ASL, so Kim made clay sculptures representing objects, the sounds they make, and the visible ways in which the sounds are signed to her.

Christine Sun Kim’s work, Too Much Future, is currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the High Line.

Mariska De Groot

Dutch optical sound artist, Mariska De Groot, creates multimedia installations, using analog light-to-sound instruments that she builds. Through her work, De Groot “aims to excite a multi-sensorial and phenomenological experience in light, sound, movement and space.”

Her works include: Hidden Patterns (2017), in which she projects light through a spinning perforated wheel. The projection patterns are then converted into an audio signal that plays in sync with the light projection. The installation functions as an audio-visual experiment because our eyes cannot keep up with the shutter speed of the projections, but the audible tones are constant in our ears. Stirred Mandala (2017) is a performance piece that operates similarly to Hidden Patterns, except light is being projected on the floor, and De Groot stands in the way of the projection in order to mediate the interference patterns created by the light before it is converted into sound. The performance melds machine and the human body, and the relationship between the two produces a beautiful and surreal multi-sensory phenomenon.

Edu Comelles

Edu Comelles is first and foremost a sound designer and composer. The Valencia-based artist has published roughly 20 musical works throughout his career, as a solo artist and in multiple collective projects, ranging between sound art, soundscapism, and experimental music. But his most recent work (in progress), Spectre — which he performed live for the first time on May 3, 2018 — converts field recordings from the artist’s daily life into spectrograph images. As someone who has primarily experimented with sound, Comelles places his sound design behind its visual representation in Spectre as a means to “invite the contemplation of lost sounds under a metaphorical visual language.”

Susan Philipsz

Susan Philipsz is one of the most prominent sound artists currently working. She received a BFA in Sculpture from Duncan of Jordanstone College in Scotland, but most of her installations currently on display are site-specific and rely more on sound recordings than visual art. Philipsz explores concepts like transience, memory, and the emotional impact of historical events, usually tied to the spaces in which she presents her work. She creates sonic architectural landscapes by projecting recordings of herself singing and/or other instruments through speakers that she arranges throughout exhibition spaces.

Lost in Space, Philipsz’s exhibition at Bonniers Kunsthall last spring, is a sound installation inspired by Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s space opera, Aniara. Philipsz isolated the first violin from the opera and recorded each note separately. The different tones were then played through multiple loudspeakers that the artist spread throughout Bonniers Kunsthall. Accompanying the sound recording was a film, in which a camera moves around a violinist playing the opening musical phrase to Aniara, which is the Morse distress signal containing the message “S-O-S, A-N-I-A-R-A, S-O-S,”  Philipsz’ sound installation, titled Separated Strings, is currently on exhibit at the Kunsthall. It is a violin recording based on the work Studie für Streichorchester by the Jewish composer Pavel Haas, who wrote the piece while imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Haas was later murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Philipsz recorded solely the violin and left spaces of silence throughout the piece to evoke feelings of loss and separation and call attention to the crisis European Jews and other immigrants faced throughout the mid-1900s. Separated Strings will be playing from February 17 through May 6, 2018.

Words by Nick Nicewonder