PRINT November 2009


Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion

EVEN BEFORE I KNEW I would be going to Brazil, I had begun reading Conquest of the Useless, Werner Herzog’s journals during the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982). Had I been reading something else, I’d perhaps have been less attuned to the pervasive sense of folly I encountered at Inhotim, the sprawling botanical/art paradise in Brumadinho in the state of Minas Gerais that mining magnate Bernardo Paz has established to display a small portion of his world-class collection of art.* To say he has spared no expense is to vastly underreport both the magnitude and the aspirations of the place. Paz employs three curators, led by New York–based Allan Schwartzman and including Jochen Volz (recently artistic organizer of the Venice Biennale) and Rodrigo Moura, who have recently augmented an already overwhelming array of art with nine large-scale commissions, all inaugurated this year.

Inhotim, which takes its name from a contraction of “Senhor Tim” (a reference to an Englishman who once owned some of the land it occupies), morphs and distorts simple identifications such as museum, sculpture park, and botanical garden, becoming something hitherto unnamed and unimagined. The best analogy I’ve come up with for Paz and Inhotim is Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory, which actually gives a fairly good sense of the scale, ambition, and style of the man and the place. The 110-acre complex contains a spatially diffuse constellation of grand projects by the celestial figures of contemporary art: Janine Antoni, Matthew Barney, Chris Burden, Janet Cardiff, Olafur Eliasson, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Dan Graham, Hélio Oiticica, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, to name but a few.

The nine new projects are installed in forest and farmland outside the coiffed inner section of the complex, referred to as “the park.” A new sculptural installation by Barney echoes the themes and forms in his video De Lama Lâmina (From Mud, a Blade), 2004, which runs continuously elsewhere. Burden’s Beam Drop, 2008—a game of pickup sticks played with steel I beams dropped from a crane into a pool of wet cement—thornily crowns a barren hilltop, looking like a 3-D Pollock made by God. A purpose-built pavilion houses a piece by Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and a swimming pool by Jorge Macchi mimics the form of an address book: the deck verso, the pool recto, alphabetic tabs forming the stairs leading down into the water.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these ambitious projects is Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion, 2009, which is located on a thickly forested hilltop at the north end of the property. After five years of planning and construction, Sonic Pavilion was up and running when I visited in the third week of August, a few weeks before its October launch. As Aitken explained to me, the unusually long construction time was necessitated by the work’s central feature: a hole approximately one mile deep and one foot in diameter. Using specialized equipment, the hole was painstakingly drilled, emptied, drilled deeper, emptied again, and so on before being lined with concrete. Aitken then lowered a battery of microphones and accelerometers into the hole at varying depths. At the top, the sounds that result—of the earth’s rotation and the shifting of seismic plates—are transposed into the range of human hearing and amplified by eight loudspeakers arrayed around the circular interior of the structure. The printed project description speaks of “translating” the earth’s movement: “This artwork strives to provide a new relationship to the earth we constantly walk upon and occupy, revealing its mysterious and living dialogue.”

During my visit, Aitken described the temporal experience of Sonic Pavilion as “a moment that doesn’t rely on past or future.” This mythical moment, or Augenblick (the blink of an eye), found purchase in visual art with the advent of Minimalism in the 1960s: Donald Judd’s “specific objects” seemed to demand an all-at-once response that indicated phenomenology as the apposite theoretical rubric for decoding Minimalism’s apparent objectivity. But in the 1970s, taking their lead from Jacques Derrida’s critique of phenomenology, theorists of art began to require more of the encounter with a Minimalist sculpture than the instantaneous “now.” Instead, they proposed, Minimalism demands an encounter not merely with the object but with its context: the exhibition space, the institution, economics, gender, sociality, and politics. In a 1990 essay titled “The Blink of an Eye,” Rosalind Krauss issued a damning indictment of traditional art history’s confidence in the “natural sign” of the art object, characterizing the concept of the now as “myth, spatial or mechanical metaphor, and inherited metaphysical concept.” If the artwork’s meaning making necessarily relies on its context, then investment in instantaneous experience is wasted on the empty promise of metaphysical abundance.

Aitken is not the first artist to turn to the medium of sound in an effort to create, as he put it, an experience with “no beginning and no end, deep-rooted, pure, and direct.” There is a pervasive sense—not just among visual artists who turn to sound as an alternative but also among artists who work primarily with sound—that the sonic is truer, more immediate, less susceptible to manipulation, than the visual, as if the adjective sound (meaning “solid, durable, stable”) should somehow constitute the noun. This tendency has a history. In “Primal Sound,” an essay written in 1919, Rainer Maria Rilke fantasizes about dropping a phonograph needle into a skull’s coronal suture (the line created by the fusing of bone plates during infancy):

What would happen? A sound would necessarily result, a series of sounds, music. . . . [W]hat variety of lines then, occurring anywhere, could one not put under the needle and try out? Is there any contour that one could not, in a sense, complete in this way and then experience it, as it makes itself felt, thus trans- formed, in another field of sense?”

Rilke’s fantasy announces the dream of a unified field of the senses, bridging “the abysses which divide the one order of sense experience from the other” and “completing,” to use Rilke’s verb, our experience of the world. The implication is that there is a wholeness out there and that any feeling we may have of insufficient understanding is merely a product of our inadequate perceptual faculties in here.

Unaware of the book in my bag, Aitken at one point conjured the name Fitzcarraldo, relating the folly of his project to Herzog’s. Yet, while Herzog’s film and Aitken’s installation both offer challenges to the intransigence of the earth, Rilke’s hypothetical experiment offers a way to describe the fundamental difference between them: For Herzog, dropping a phonographic needle into the suture’s groove would be meaningless, except for the act of having done it. The resultant sound would not get us any closer to the “truth” of the skull or its onetime inhabitant (brain, soul, self); it would document only the act qua act. Here, in the self-aware presentation of doing something—rather than in the faithful re-presentation of something— resides the only experience to which we can convincingly ascribe the adjective true. Herzog warns against the seduction of thinking that the truth is something out there and that knowing is simply a matter of quantifying and transporting that something in here: “Facts do not create truth.” Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion, on the other hand, equates the facticity of sensory experience with truth, but then dodges the responsibilities of this equation, clinging to the justifying premise that, ultimately, there is a something, a telos, backstopping experience.

The pavilion is accessed by means of a spiraling, inclined walkway that starts outside, following the contour of the hill, before turning into a winding concrete corridor that appears to move inevitably toward this evasive something. The spiral path continues inside on a raised wooden ramp that doubles as the room’s only seating. As the sloped corridor emerges into the glass pavilion, the earth appears through the panoramic windows in its primeval virginity, the Brazilian forest receding endlessly in every direction. When the visitor nears the glass, a lenticular film blurs the periphery of the field of vision as in cinematic depictions of a dream or a memory. Everything—the corridor leading inward like a cathedral labyrinth, the emptiness of the interior, the austere geometry, the foggy visual frame—is designed to induce the impression of unprecedented access to secret sensory experience.

The sound of the pavilion is unpredictable, or, as it is called in music, aleatory. During my visit, the speakers emitted a low, steady rumble. Occasionally, a brief, higher-pitched moment of friction intervened, like the sound of rubbing your hands together in the cold. I take Aitken at his word when he says the primal churning of the audio is the sound of the earth a mile below its surface. But what was I actually hearing? Stone moving against stone? Loose material shifting as solid material beneath it gave way? To pedantically supply this information would reduce the “mysterious and living dialogue” to the didactic monologue of a science exhibit. I found myself relating the sound of the earth to more familiar, worldly sounds: wind across a microphone, jet engines from inside the jet, the massive transformer outside my bedroom window; and to musical and artistic sounds: the Theatre of Eternal Music’s Inside the Dream Syndicate, Volume I: Day of Niagara (1965), Peter Ablinger’s Weiss/Weisslich 6 for twelve cassette recorders (1992), and, most uncannily, Nurse with Wound’s Salt Marie Celeste (2003). The sound itself is nothing special: Only the suggestion of its source solicits our attention and grants it meaning. Of course, this is always the case. Meaning does not simply inhere within the in-itself, regardless of whether it is the thing-in-itself or sound-in-itself. Meaning is only ever produced by the frictions between things. Like every medium, sound derives its meaning from context, from intertextuality, from the play of difference in its conceptual and material strata. It is the worldly, rather than the earthly, that presents the possibility of meaning.

The situation and design of Sonic Pavilion insist that there is something sacrosanct beneath the superficial stratum we occupy. The sound emanating from the hole and amplified in the pavilion is the cipher that will unlock the coded mystery of the deep. The Rilkean implication is that a phenomenal entity, like the earth, possesses immanent, essential properties that are consistently expressed across different sensory manifestations. It might be comforting to think that phenomena can be “solved” and that experience can be completed by filling in the blanks in our senses. But confronting the existential burden of knowing that experience inevitably evades completion is surely more honest. Sonic Pavilion denies the visitor the privilege of assuming this burden, offering blissful ignorance in its place. Too bad. It’s not every day that an artist is given the opportunity, the site, and the resources to dig a mile- deep hole in the ground. Sonic Pavilion comes so close to initiating a genuine act of consciousness, of conscientiousness, of conscience. But ultimately it refuses to gaze into the void at its core, abdicating the responsibility of facing up to what Wallace Stevens describes as “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Seth Kim-Cohen is an artist and theorist. His book In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art was published by Continuum this year.