Silence and Time

Noah Simblist
June 30, 2011

Since Jeffrey Grove, The Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, arrived at the Dallas Museum of Art, he has organized two thoughtful exhibitions drawn primarily from the museum’s collection. The first, Re-Seeing the Contemporary: Selected from the Collection, included a number of works that I hadn’t seen before at the DMA. For instance, one room included stunning works by Bruce Connor, Jess and Wallace Berman: three artists that used text, images and collage in works that subvert the normal telling of art history as it appears in the late twentieth century. The most recent exhibition, Silence and Time, takes its cue from John Cage’s famous composition 4’33” in order to frame artists who explore aural presence and absence with various modes of perceiving temporality. Though held together by these abstract themes, the works in the exhibition are incredibly diverse, allowing for subtle and surprising commonalities between seemingly disparate things.

Installation view, Silence and Time, Dallas Museum of Art; courtesy the Dallas Museum of Art.

4’33” consists of a performer sitting at a piano with Cage’s score in front of him, looking at a stopwatch until four minutes and thirty-three seconds had elapsed without touching the piano. When the work was first performed in 1952, the audience shifted in their seats, coughing and muttering to one another while they tried to figure out what was going on. At the end of the composition, the performer took the score and walked off of the stage. 4’33” used the performer’s silence to frame the ambient noise of the recital hall, creating something in one sense absent of sound but in another sense quite full.

Silence and Time uses this notion of silence in a similar way. Some of the first artworks that one encounters in the DMA’s exhibition—two abstract paintings by Wade Guyton and a sculpture by James Lee Byars, Eros (1992)—speak to the inherent duality of presence and absence. Guyton’s paintings, one white with thin lines to resemble notebook paper and the other dark, inky and meditative, mirror one another. Byars’ sculpture looks like a stretched-out abstracted version of Brancusi’s The Kiss (1912): two long and rounded marble forms that gently rest on one another. These works, like abstractions by Allan McCollum and Boran Šarcevic, equate the absence of overt visual imagery with aural silence. 

Anri Sala, Intervista, 1998; single-channel video, 26 minutes; Dallas Museum of Art, Lay Family Acquisition Fund. Photography courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

Anri Sala’s Intervista (1998), created while the artist was a student in Paris, revolves around a black and white 16 mm newsreel from the 1970s that the artist found in a box one day. Made by Albanian state television, the newsreel has no soundtrack and shows an interview with Sala’s mother, an activist in the Albanian Communist Youth Union. In the video, Sala asks his mother about the film and finds others involved in the film’s creation to discover the circumstances of its making. Towards the end of the video, he takes the film to a school for the deaf. The video shows the moment when these deaf children can read his mother’s lips and tell him what she was saying. Adding this dialog to the film as subtitles Sala shows it to his mother. With the film’s silence undone, his mother suddenly faces the collapse of a historical chasm between her youthful utopian politics and the painful realities that a post-communist Albanian political reality revealed.

Next to Intervista is Paul Pfeiffer’s Empire (2004), a one-channel video that shows every discrete instant that wasps take to build a nest. Shown in real time the film runs for three months. Like Andy Warhol’s famous 1964 film of the same name, which documented the Empire State Building for eight hours, Pfeiffer’s video is an exercise in patience that emphasizes the epic scale of the everyday.

Paul Pfeiffer, Empire, 2004; one-channel video, three months duration, rack mounted server and RAID data storage system, video projector; dimensions variable; courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and Gagosian Gallery, New York.

I saw Silence and Time at the DMA on the same day as the BooksmART festival. The hubbub of hundreds of kids chattering and running through the galleries echoed through the Barrel Vault, creating an ironic tension between the premise of the exhibition and the reality of the contemporary museum. As I sat in front of Sala’s film watching a close-up of his mother’s anguished face as she grappled with the guilt of her complicity with a totalitarian regime, I wondered what the kids squirming restlessly behind me thought about this moment. What does the collapse of communism and the troubled and violent turn to capitalism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s mean to these American children, or for that matter, what does it mean to their parents?

These questions are linked to the tensions between various conceptions of the museum. Many educational departments try to turn visitors’ experiences from passive enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure to active thought. When John Cage created a vacuum of sound, he did so in order to create a situation where listeners became acutely aware of their surroundings and even their own being. To take this strategy of active engagement with Silence and Time, one would hope that the museum might encourage viewers to look and listen quietly and openly to the works displayed, questioning their own complicity with the political content of works like Anri Sala’s. 

Just as Cage showed us with 4’33” that silence is full, Silence and Time challenges the notion of time as an objective constant, a structure empty of social forces. Both silence and time are prone to ideology, whether it be political histories or institutional power. Paul Pfeiffer’s piece only amplifies these notions through its allusion to another Empire: the famous book published in 2000 by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. In this book, the authors describe a new postmodern form of imperialism in an age of globalization and argue for new forms of protest. The BooksmART festival epitomized both the commodification of the publishing industry and the museum as education-as-entertainment-industry in ways that echo the picture of capitalism that Hardt and Negri delineate. Thankfully, both the curatorial and artistic integrity of Silence and Time persevered through these symptoms of Empire, and like Cage’s 4’33” turned the audience into the performers.

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