What does a painting sound like and what does sound look like? Leonie Shinn-Morris listens to the artists that responded with a sonic installation to paintings from the National Gallery. Experiencing how the sound of the exhibition resonates like its paintings, Leonie listens and enters into conversation with the work.
Through an open window I see the rolling hills that lie beyond the monastery, sheep grazing on their slopes.
I hear the sound of a farmer hitching a plough to his cattle in the distance, the ox making disgruntled protestations at the new weight on its back.
From behind I hear the hurried footsteps of a monk running across worn flagstones and my eyes are drawn to follow the sound down through the arched corridor that leads out beyond.
In the distance, through the arched windows, I see the sun descending below the hills. The evening light slants through the stained glass windows and rain starts to fall. I hear its patter on the ancient monastery roof tiles just above my head.
But I tilt my head to one side and see the papier mache insides of the rolling hills in the distance. I see the edge of the farmyard as it drops off onto a makeshift tabletop.
Taking a slight step to the right, I see the painted walls behind the window arches and the artificial lights that are casting the evening sun. Looking up inside the vaulted roof of this miniature monastery, I see the speaker projecting the sound of rain on the model’s roof.
I had stepped into the 15th century world of Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his Study, meticulously recreated in Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installation and 3D model Conversation with Antonello. This is just one of the six distinct sonic worlds of Soundscapes at the National Gallery, each installation formed around a different historic painting chosen from the gallery’s permanent collection.
These audio responses take on varied forms: from the literal depictions of the sonic environment of the artwork, as in Chris Watson’s wildlife and nature recordings representing the lapping waves and rustling trees of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele; to formal relationships with the original work, as in Jamie xx’s sonic pointillism that draws from the physical surface of Theo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene; to conceptual engagements with the piece, as in Nico Muhly’s meditative, religiously contemplative response to the Wilton Diptych portable altarpiece. Stepping into the distinct worlds of the paintings either literally, formally, or conceptually, the static flat plane of the paintings become animated and almost cinematic (the sound accompaniments offering these works a newly found temporality), as we watch the paintings, rather than just looking at them.
But more than merely stepping inside the newly-animated worlds of these old masterpieces, we actively create and interact with them. The ‘conversation’ referenced by the title of Conversations with Antonello does not only take place between Cardiff and Miller and their 15th century oil painting, it’s also a conversation with us, the viewer/listener (or viewing-listener, listening-viewer). Soundscapes stages a correspondence with the listener’s body in the very engagement with sonority itself. Inspired by the abstraction of Cezanne’s Bathers, Gabriel Yared’s Les Grandes Baigneuses features individual speakers positioned in different locations inside the dark room, each playing just one instrument from Yared’s plaintitive, lilting melody. Yared explains, ‘the way [in which the visitors] will walk around the room, they can do their own almost music, their own balance, their own dynamics [sic]’. Les Grandes Baigneuses forces the viewer/listener to select a route around the space, choosing which sections to hear, manipulating the piece with their bodies by stepping slightly to the side, tilting their head, creating new compositions and arrangements with each movement in the room.
Each of the soundscapes play with the imbrication of listener and work that occurs within sound, transposing this active relationship onto the ‘passive’ viewing encounter that is usually experienced in relation to a painting. Unlike the distance created by the viewer/viewed dyad operative within the visual arts, sound moves into and around the body of the listener, collapsing the boundary between self and work. As such, the listener is always participating and interacting, bodies echoing and resonating along with the sound, which moves toward the visitor, traversing their bodies and entering into an immediate relation, integration and negotiation. Sound connects these spaces, melting across body and object and causing resonances across these separate worlds; the very nature of sound and the physicality of sonic experience problematizes notions of passivity and activity within the framework of an art encounter.
The works of Soundscapes speak back to the old paintings and, as viewer/listener, we ourselves engage in a conversation with the works of the exhibition. However, the original paintings now also speak back to us across time and space. I suddenly begin to notice startling elements of the existing paintings, brought into fresh relief through this new contextualisation. The model of Conversations plays with its artificiality, but this makes tangible just how staged the original painting was already, with its theatrically framed stage, on which St Jerome’s study is built – like a cardboard set dotted with props. In order to hear the different parts of Susan Philipsz’s Air on a Broken String, we need to move around the space, just as, in much the same way, one needs to move around the original Holbein work in order to catch a glimpse of the hidden optical illusion of a 3D skull that hovers below the figures. Soundscapes is no one-way, simple homage to these old works. Rather, these paintings reassert themselves in this encounter: they were always and already temporal, spatial and animated – never static. The distanced viewer/viewed dyad was rarely as passive as we’ve been led to believe, if it can be said to exist at all. The paintings were already world-creating, always composing their own music.
The success of Soundscapes lies in its ability to draw the spectator into a new relationship with the world-making processes of these existing works. We take the exhibition on with us, reanimating the other works in the traditional spaces of the gallery’s collection. Having been back to the National Gallery’s permanent collection since, I now hear the music of The Fighting Temeraire and I am closely attuned to the world of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Like the literal sounds of the exhibition, its conceptual activity resonates.
The paintings are like open window and through them we can hear a new world being created in the distance.
Like the iterative process of sound itself, we move between these worlds when encountering these works. Like the ascending curves of the cardboard hills, the contours between our world and theirs loosen.
I tilt my head to one side and I change the sound that I am listening to. Taking a slight step to the right, I have entered into conversation with the artwork.
The sound works speak to us, and we reply, only to hear ourselves repeated back again in our own sonority.
Leonie Shinn-Morris is a writer and researcher currently based in London.