New York

Anri Sala, Ravel Ravel (detail), 2013, two-channel HD video (color, sound, 20 minutes 45 seconds), sixteen-channel sound installation, dimensions variable.

Anri Sala, Ravel Ravel (detail), 2013, two-channel HD video (color, sound, 20 minutes 45 seconds), sixteen-channel sound installation, dimensions variable.

Anri Sala

Anri Sala, Ravel Ravel (detail), 2013, two-channel HD video (color, sound, 20 minutes 45 seconds), sixteen-channel sound installation, dimensions variable.

Occupying three floors of the New Museum, and fully energizing exhibition spaces that can ordinarily feel disproportionate, “Anri Sala: Answer Me” traced the reorientations within the Albanian-born video artist’s practice. The survey, which was organized by Massimiliano Gioni, Margot Norton, and Natalie Bell, was dominated by work from the past decade, when Sala’s ongoing ruminations on past versus present—initially expressed in a more-or-less straightforward documentary form—moved toward more elliptical studies of sited music renditions.

The large-scale installations reorganized early-twentieth-century classical-music compositions from a contemporary perspective. Ravel Ravel, 2013, a double-screen video, shows the tightly framed left hands of two pianists playing Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major (1929–30), a piece commissioned by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm fighting in World War I. Sala made variations in the score’s tempo markings to generate occasional lags between the two performances, creating short delays and realignments reminiscent of Steve Reich’s phase pieces; he also transformed the viewing room into a towering semi-anechoic chamber, buffering its high walls with dark foam wedges to eliminate natural echo. Down the hall, the accompanying Unravel, 2013, shot in the German pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale, found a DJ attempting to “correct” the imposed phase differences by manipulating two albums of the same performances on two turntables, her hand movements taking on an otherworldly quality through deft close-ups.

Sala’s alterations of written music are even more drastic in The Present Moment, 2014. He isolated notes from Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899), reshuffled them according to the Austrian composer’s twelve-tone system (which this late-Romantic-era piece predates), and played the notes individually through separate speakers in the gallery space, arranged so that it sounds as if each tone is darting laterally overhead across the room. A pair of videos, The Present Moment (in D) and The Present Moment (in B-flat), both 2014, present a string sextet doggedly bowing only the D and B-flat notes in the score—another Minimalist gesture. Like the DJ in Unravel, the musicians show a steely determination, deep in the concentration required to deal with a deceptively simple yet abnormal task. They are stationed in an airy building, which turns out to be the Haus der Kunst in Munich, a relic from Nazi Germany that would have been off-limits to Schönberg (whom the Nazis ranked among the “degenerate” artists). The deconstruction of the music and the pointed choice of setting are of a piece: Sala seeks to highlight a potential impermanence in both musical and physical architecture, whether due to artistic intervention or societal change.

Unfortunately consigned to weekly screenings in the museum’s basement, outside the exhibition proper, Sala’s debut, Intervista (Finding the Words), 1998, is critical to understanding the evolution of his recent work. The events recounted in the twenty-six-minute-plus-long documentary are prompted by Sala’s discovery of a 1970s television interview with his mother, then a leader of the Communist Youth Alliance. The sound track is missing, and his subsequent recovery efforts lead him to a school for deaf students, who read her lips. He transcribes their findings as subtitles, and his mother, watching herself on-screen all these years later, is shocked and alienated by the results: During the Albanian dictatorship such encounters were practically scripted, and her propagandistic words, which she deplores as “gibberish,” were the Communist Party’s, not her own. Here are the seeds of the resyncings and, presumably, of Sala’s interest in modifying or circumventing musical scores. Also descended from Intervista are the inaudibility of a woman’s moving lips in Answer Me, 2008, and the title of Làk-kat 2.0 (British/American), 2015, which means “gibberish” in Senegal’s Wolof language. The music is diegetic, but not indigenous, in the later videos: These works’ probing nature leaves open the question of whether Sala’s shooting locations, like Intervista’s salvaged footage, lack a sound, or whether music itself needs to be situated in unexpected places.

Alan Licht