‘High fidelity’ is the phrase that immediately comes to mind upon entering Jeremy Sharma’s sound-only installation in Aloft at Hermès, one of Fondation d’enterprise Hermès’ five art spaces around the world. While audiophiles would appreciate the quality listening experience, my clever but premature ad lib proves only to speak of a veneer. Any semblance of fidelity to my experience requires a little more nuance than self-proclaimed wit.
‘fidelity’ is located in the exhibition space on the top floor of Hermès’ flagship store at Liat Towers, Orchard Road. A wave of defiance rises in me within (or even 20 metres from) a realm I feel so distinctly unsuited to, but the fun window display by Indonesian artist duo Indieguerillas helps to dissipate some of that class anxiety. A beaming yellow playground ornamented with this season’s products, vaguely like a Rube Goldberg machine (think chain reactions), albeit with children’s playground equipment and some very expensive toys. The anticipated momentum never actually carries through — a twitch of the unnerving darker side found in Indieguerillas’ works.
An elevator up opens directly into Aloft, where an affable gallery attendant presents an exhibition booklet before pointing in the direction of the installation. Aloft at Hermès holds two exhibitions yearly under the same theme selected by Programme Director Emi Eu. This year, ‘Materiality’. At first glance, the word feels too perfect for the given setting and all its decidedly material products. But for ‘fidelity’, Sharma focussed on the intangible, recording songs from around the region from different communities — the Rohingya, Orang Seletar, Javanese and Kristang — through his travels over the years.
On the top floor, the installation is insulated by two heavy curtains, presumably to keep the sound contained. Nevertheless the extended process of getting to the room from ground level creates a measure of suspense. This is immediately quelled: the sparse room is a calming environ from the faff of getting to it, and a retreat from the bustle of people and things just beyond its walls. Only planes of colour seem to exist here — taupe fabric panels on cream walls and a circular wooden bench, its grains appearing to flow against the solid cerulean floor. It is dimly lit save spotlights trained on the bench, and looking around, six almost-sculptural standing speakers strategically placed around the bench.
The circular bench confuses for a moment — do I sit facing inward or out? I opt for the latter for a better view of the room. I find out from the attendant later the artist’s intent was for listeners to be able to see one another. Although I was very aware of the circle’s symbolism and my own part in being complicit with the notion of togetherness, my straight-laced, lady-like subconscious somehow could not fathom swinging my legs around to sit the other way. There being no other visitors my choice was probably of little consequence. However, my physical temporisation seemed to contradict the emphasis on ‘sound-only’. The bench, the layout of the speakers, the colour of the floor were choices made to facilitate listening and are impossible to divorce from the experience.
I enter in the middle of a song playing to an empty room. The raw, immediate voices of children and adults fill the circle. Solos give way to harmonies, then back to individual voices again. Songs occasionally overlap onto succeeding ones, and it sounds like one straining over the other in competition. Yet in the musical discord I find myself searching for bits of harmony. There is beauty in the music and sincerity in their voices that I find myself holding out for these moments of togetherness when the music overlaps. When the music stops and silence reigns, the room has the same emptiness of school grounds without school children— energy and life stripped away to reveal the nuts and bolts of pure function. I felt more acutely why much of the exhibition collateral spoke only about the sound.
A short introduction to the exhibition in Fondation d’enterprise Hermès’ website states Sharma is “particularly interested in the possible materialisations of a priori intangible substances”. Saying the sentence is complex would be an understatement, and his own first reflections provide the reader no reprieve. He states that fidelity to him “could be prescribed as a question of representation and authenticity and the organising forces between them”. The installation is “by no means an account to accurately document and depict a community”, rather “an amplified field of ambiguity; a de-stabilisation of the artist and world and yet — a pushing through of a final form with faith”.
The cover illustration of the handbook, taken from Sharma’s reflections during the process on view outside the room, is a fitting emblem of the 10-minute installation: only the certainty of a beginning and an end. The process of getting there highlights the ambiguity Sharma speaks of — what it means to represent with authenticity. The word fidelity does not necessarily mean a hundred percent exactitude, but suggests a degree of it. Sharma’s musical representation is diluted — the music of communities that are not his own filtered through production, and eventually relayed to our eyes in place far dislocated from the music’s origin. It may sound authentic to us, but is it really? When I say diluted, what was it originally then? And was that original thing in itself authentic? Ambiguity is the field in which Sharma thrives.
Outside, the chatty gallery attendant strikes up conversation about the installation, probing into the experience and introducing Sharma’s research material. He informs me of how to correctly position yourself on the circular bench, then mentions Sharma’s preferred position is in fact prone — he would rather be lying on the floor listening to this. He actually did during a press tour, the attendant says. I can imagine: even just tip-toeing into my own shallow waters of 'fidelity', I could probably lie down too.
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