View of “Art or Sound,” 2014. From left: Tom Sachs, Toyan’s Jr., 2001; Gebrüder Wellershaus fairground organ, early-twentieth century.

View of “Art or Sound,” 2014. From left: Tom Sachs, Toyan’s Jr., 2001; Gebrüder Wellershaus fairground organ, early-twentieth century.

“Art or Sound”

Ca’ Corner della Regina

View of “Art or Sound,” 2014. From left: Tom Sachs, Toyan’s Jr., 2001; Gebrüder Wellershaus fairground organ, early-twentieth century.

Exhibitions examining the relationship between art and sound have been plentiful in recent years, among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s 2013 “Soundings: A Contemporary Score.” This trend reflects sound’s importance in contemporary practice. Artists such as Carsten Nicolai, Haroon Mirza, Susan Philipsz, Florian Hecker, and Janet Cardiff have made music or sound the focus of their work and have addressed the problem of sound’s visualization in a museum context, often with success. Yet, despite all this focused attention, the presentation of sound in an environment essentially designed for seeing objects remains a conundrum.

“Art or Sound,” curated by Germano Celant, thoroughly reconsiders the relationship between object and sound and the question of how to present the latter in a gallery space. Celant stages a historical inquiry covering nearly five hundred years, from 1520 to today. The presentation includes more than 180 objects, from musical machines to sculptural instruments, clocks, and automatons. What sets “Art or Sound” apart from most other shows on the subject is not only its historical scope but also the force of its visual stimulation. Rather than following a Minimalist visual aesthetic to create an environment that forces us to focus on the act of listening (or borrowing the look of a recording studio, as some sound shows have done), the presentation recalls a classic cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer. It exuberantly commingles visual and sonorous experiences, with countless objects in every corner, niche, and nook of the Renaissance palazzo in which it has been staged, the Venice outpost of the Fondazione Prada. As with most of the foundation’s exhibitions, much attention has been given to the show’s design; in particular, the lighting accentuates the architecture of the rooms and creates a historical atmosphere without overshadowing the works on view. The entire floor of the exhibition is covered with pieces of shock-absorbent black rubber, and the pedestals and vitrines are covered with layers of gray felt to silence any sound that visitors could potentially make when walking around the galleries.

The exhibition design has produced a refreshing continual back-and-forth between historical artifacts and contemporary artworks. The selection of the former includes Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s ornate late- eighteenth-century birdcage clocks, replete with motorized “singing” birds; an astonishing variety of organs, including one made of glass, one that was part of a carriage, and one of the legendary fairground organs of the Wellershaus brothers from the early-twentieth century; snake-shaped horns; and a large selection of music boxes. There are classics of the sound-art genre, including remakes of Luigi Russolo’s Futurist Intonarumori; music scores by John Cage; Nam June Paik’s sculpture Urmusik, 1961, a wooden box with strings that forms a primitive bass; Arman’s NBC Rage, 1961, a broken bass violin; Ken Butler’s K-Board, 1983; and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s monumental Trombe del Giudizio (Trumpets of Judgment), 1968, three large instruments that were originally used in a performance by the artist.

Other notable works include Tom Sachs’s Toyan’s Jr., 2001, a large speaker installation modeled on the sound systems the artist encountered in Jamaica, and Ruth Ewan’s A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2003–, a CD jukebox filled with more than 2,200 songs addressing social or political issues, organized into categories such as the antiwar movement, feminism, and civil rights. Anri Sala’s A Solo in the Doldrums (Based on an unseen dance by Siobhan Davies), 2009, is a snare drum activated by low-frequency sound vibrations based on a dance performed with no audience; Guido van der Werve’s Chess Piano, 2009, is a hybrid piano-chessboard that makes a sound whenever one of the chess pieces is moved.

In some ways, the dichotomy implied in the title of the exhibition is misleading. The aim is not to distinguish between art and sound but to allow visitors to experience both together. Sound becomes another aspect—joining with form, color, concept, and materiality—that artists can use to communicate with their audience. Connecting eye and ear, the visible and the audible, the exhibition encourages us to think of sound not as interference but as a productive agent, creating associations, connections, and relationships.

Jens Hoffmann