Review: Soundscapes at the National Gallery

Sensory interaction seems to be a popular theme in contemporary art. At the Tate Modern, the winning project of the IK Prize 2015 is the multi-sensory experience ‘Tate Sensorium’. The immersive exhibition presents sounds, smells, and tastes inspired by four of the gallery’s paintings, and offers the ability to measure your physiological responses to the experience. At the National Gallery they have adopted a more sombre (but equally inspiring) approach, with the summer exhibition ‘Soundscapes’. What the two projects have in common is to ask the question ‘Can senses other than sight change the way we “see” art?’.

The concept behind ‘Soundscapes’ is pretty straightforward, as the tagline explains: ‘Hear the painting, See the sound’. The curators have asked six contemporary composers to pick a painting from the Gallery collection, and compose piece of music or sound art to match it. And the results are quite astonishing.

Before the exhibition, an introductory video helps the visitor to get in the right mind-set, and to understand the project of ‘Soundscapes’ as a whole. Just about the right length (20 mins), the video overviews the six works of visual and audio art without spoiling any of the magic. It simply gives necessary context, while intriguing with an appetizer of what is coming next.

'Saint Jerome in his Study', Antonello da Messina
‘Saint Jerome in his Study’,
Antonello da Messina

The exhibition itself consists of six dark rooms separated by sound-isolating corridors. They favour the visitor’s total immersionin the artworks, and give the whole exhibition a mood that is almost meditative. The outcomes range from a brilliant piece of quirky music by Nico Muhly in response to the Wilton Diptych (c. 1395–1399), to a wildlife record by Chris Watson based on the painting ‘Lake Keitele’ by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1905). In-between are Susan Philipsz’s three violin tones, accompanying Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ (1533), and Janet Cardiff’s & George Bures Miller’s transformation of Antonello da Messina’s painting ‘Saint Jerome in his study’ (1475) into 3D, complete with outdoor sounds. The peaceful and idyllic ‘Les Grandes Baigneuses’ by Cezanne (c. 1900) is complemented by Gabriel Yared’s soundtrack, and Jamie xx’s piece called ‘Ultramarine’ is paired with impressionist painting ‘Coastal Scene’ (1892).

The relationship between painting and music is constantly investigated and challenged, in every room. To begin with, there are more similarities between paintings and melodies than one might expect. For example, much like in the visual arts there is a perspective one can adopt, in the same way when recording natural sounds you can (and must) choose where to place your microphone, as Chris Watson explains, which ultimately affects your recording. Moreover, concepts can be applied metaphorically to music as much as to paintings. For instance, the tension between the two ambassadors of Holbein’s painting is reproduced in the tension of the violin chords that are being played (Susan Philipsz). And, perhaps a more obvious point, but still startling to experience directly: music is made up by different instruments but the ultimate result is something new, just like pointillist paintings are made up of the sum of a thousand different brushstrokes (Jamie xx).

'Coastal Scene', Théo von Rysselberghe
‘Coastal Scene’, Théo von Rysselberghe

‘Soundscapes’ also has the merit of drawing the viewers’ attention to more general thoughts, making sure there is much they can take away from the exhibition. One for all is Nico Muhly’s observation that ‘there is a musicality to everything’, from the simple objects of life, to both natural and painted landscapes; in fact, every environment is an all-sounding environment.

I loved the exhibition for both its simplicity and incredible innovativeness, and in the stimulating richness with which the topic was approached. If there is indeed a trend in contemporary art to integrate senses and synesthetically explore their interaction, then I am very curious to see what future art will look (and sound) like. Vision or hearing by themselves are great, but what they can achieve when combined is something we cannot but be excited about.

Anna Zanetti

For more information about ‘Soundscapes’ and for future exhibitions at the National Gallery, please visit their website.

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