Tom Nicholson, Monument for the Flooding of Royal Park (Poster), 2011, off-set print, double-sided poster, 23 3/8 x 33 1/8". From the TarraWarra Biennial 2012.

Tom Nicholson, Monument for the Flooding of Royal Park (Poster), 2011, off-set print, double-sided poster, 23 3/8 x 33 1/8". From the TarraWarra Biennial 2012.

TarraWarra Biennial 2012

TarraWarra Museum of Art

Tom Nicholson, Monument for the Flooding of Royal Park (Poster), 2011, off-set print, double-sided poster, 23 3/8 x 33 1/8". From the TarraWarra Biennial 2012.

For this carefully modest and constantly thoughtful biennial, titled “Sonic Spheres,” a focus on sound art means more than audio booths and noise spill. Exhibited work by twenty individual artists and one collaboration includes scores, drawings on top of scores, aural reinterpretations, and invented musical instruments. Indicating the conflicted and coveted currency of contemporary sound art, catalogue essayist and Sydney-based sound theorist Caleb Kelly disputes the terms of the art world’s current preoccupation with sound art altogether, questioning the very value of such a category and noting that its implicit division between the senses promotes the idea that an artwork carrying an audio component is only a novelty.

The exhibition’s other catalogue essayist and the biennial’s curator, TarraWarra Museum of Art director Victoria Lynn, on the other hand, emphasizes the longevity and durability of all the artists’ sonic predilections, dividing sound artists into two broad categories. According to Lynn, the first group experiments with disharmony, noise, and everyday sounds, resulting in forms grounded in chance, asymmetry, and discord. Their work reflects an avant-garde genealogy with which many of the artists in the biennial explicitly identify. In Mass Black Implosion (Mikrokosmos: From the Diary of a Fly, Béla Bartók), 2012, Marco Fusinato draws over a facsimile score by Bartók, tracing a line from every note toward a central point. Nathan Gray works from Cornelius Cardew’s notorious Treatise, 1963–67, a 193-page graphic score that resembles a sequence of minimal drawings more than musical notations, creating Treatise (Pages 131 and 78), 2012, a suite of sculptural modules and objects that were slowly, studiously, and memorably “played” at the biennial’s opening by Gray’s own group, A Scratch Ensemble.

Lynn writes that the biennial’s second type of artist is “more specifically interested in cultural and linguistic memory—the ways in which music or sound acts as a method of communication across space, through cultures and over time.” This approach is exemplified in Tom Nicholson and Andrew Byrne’s Music for an imaginary launch (Monument for the flooding of Royal Park), 2010, a sparse score for eight hands on prepared piano and a recorded female voice. With Nicholson’s accompanying videos and a stack of double-sided giveaway posters the work memorializes the layers of indigenous dispossession and white cupidity underlying the pastoral idyll of expansive Royal Park, in inner-city Melbourne.

The works in the biennial thus oscillate between proposing and denying that sounds communicate and that music (or culture) is translatable; which is to say that some artists imagine that sounds crystallize precisely into forms, and others allow that songs are translatable into other media or languages, but only at a cost. In “Sonic Spheres,” the first impulse connects works that might otherwise seem incompatible: almost heartbreakingly austere Australian Aboriginal Western Desert paintings and John Nixon’s Silver Monochrome, 2006–2008 (which is part of a group of enamel-paint-smothered assemblages). Both the Western Desert painters’ fields of meandering lines and Nixon’s astonishingly delicate silver paintings are, according to the artists, transcriptions of music. The Aboriginal artists translate songs into shimmering maps, and the veteran Melbourne Conceptualist’s paintings are analogous to the Cagean scores of experimental music that he has, with shifting teams of collaborators, been performing for decades. In other works, by contrast, sounds and forms obdurately refuse their transformation into one another, and translations are, artists seem to say, misleading even if they become magisterially gorgeous, as in Angelica Mesiti’s indelibly haunting Some Dance to Remember, Some Dance to Forget, 2012, which features a deeply charismatic young Algerian rai balladeer slowly singing a cover version of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” in Arabic.

Set in idyllic wine country east of Melbourne, the TarraWarra Museum of Art has not so far been noted for adventurous programming, but “Sonic Spheres” signals a substantial change, for Lynn’s show is focused, demanding, and intense. It’s a welcome exception to the gargantuan excess and fuzzy theatricality of recent Australian biennials.

Charles Green