Rolf Julius, Cloud, 2007, twenty-two speakers, graphite, audio, CD player, dimensions variable.

Rolf Julius, Cloud, 2007, twenty-two speakers, graphite, audio, CD player, dimensions variable.

Rolf Julius

Galerie Thomas Bernard - Cortex Athletico

Rolf Julius, Cloud, 2007, twenty-two speakers, graphite, audio, CD player, dimensions variable.

“Landscape” initially seemed a metaphorical or even ironic title for an exhibition of Rolf Julius (1939–2011), who is often pigeonholed as a sound artist and lumped with contemporaries such as John Cage, David Tudor, and Takehisa Kosugi. Employing the term literally, however, the show at Cortex Athletico (whose Bordeaux, France, gallery notably holds part of the late artist’s archives) aimed to rescue his oeuvre from this too narrow frame of reference. Here, rather than focusing on a simplistic cause-and-effect relationship between sound and image, Julius’s works on paper and multimedia sculptures were presented as holistic environments appealing simultaneously to multiple senses. Emphasizing this synesthetic quality, the nine works on view imbued the gallery with a diverse topography of sounds, structures, textures, colors, and even smells.

Introducing the notion of landscape, Wide Plain, 2003–2006, occupied three walls of the gallery’s front room with an enveloping panorama of shapes, colors, and words. Consisting of sixty individually framed 16¾-inch-square prints on thin Japanese paper, this work is displayed as three sets of twenty prints installed on facing walls. Each grouping, oriented horizontally, features a mix of circular blotches, squares, and stenciled text in yellow or black ink. There is no audio component, but the rows of alternating shapes and colors suggest a rhythmic musical notation. Calling attention to the composition’s legibility and ostensible playability, a mix of German and English words—HÖREN (hear), KLANGE (clang), SLOW, etc.—reinforces an acoustic and temporal interpretation.

Among the works that do em- ploy sound, the loudest (though this is not saying much, as Julius’s compositions are typically played at low volume) is Cloud, 2007, an installation comprising twenty-two Frisbee-size audio speakers. Hovering like flying saucers at slightly different heights approximately four feet from the ground, the speakers are suspended from the ceiling on thin black wires that attach to an amplifier and a CD player mounted on a high shelf. The resulting surround sound is a rich metallic hum—more dissonant than white noise, but similarly without great variation in tone, tempo, or volume. It is the visitor’s movements around the sculpture that bring out the most noticeable aural shifts. Active participation thus allows for the experience of an undulating soundscape that sonically describes the sculpture’s physical geography.

Clustered on the floor like a smack of fiery-red jellyfish, the six speakers constituting Untitled (Red), 1998, trail long, tentacle-like white wires that connect to an amp and a CD player around the corner. The transmitted audio is perceptible only from very close range. Putting an ear right up to the tea saucer–size speakers, one is rewarded with two bonus sensorial experiences. The first is a spicy odor, which comes from the ground red pepper that coats each speaker. Additionally, this intimate perspective reveals to the eye that every so often a sonic vibration disturbs the powder coating, causing the speakers’ earthy surfaces to erode and form tiny craters. Appreciated within the exhibition’s landscape focus, these small-scale seismic activities are perhaps the clearest illustration of what the artist often described as the surface of a sound.

Mara Hoberman