Although it’s been a long time since artists started exploring the possibilities of sound, sound art has long had something of a marginal character, owing to a certain definitional slipperiness, readily overlapping with fields like music and performance art. That may be beginning to change, though, with 2010 seeing the first Turner prize awarded to a work of sound art. Here in Singapore, Sound: Latitudes and Attitudes, curated by Bani Haykal and Joleen Loh, showcases some of the most fascinating examples of sound art from the past few years, bringing together a diverse group of seventeen artists, each approaching sound from their unique perspective.
As befits a major survey of sound art in Singapore, there’s an archive available for perusal – Mark Wong’s Finding Sound. It brings together numerous fragments and artifacts of Singapore’s aural history, ranging from video interviews to newspaper clippings and cassette tapes, each annotated by the artist. Rather than presenting a potted chronology of the subject, establishing clear lines of descent from early to contemporary sound art, Finding Sound offers a richly textured look into the complicated interconnections which gave rise to (and now characterise) sound in Singapore. It’s more concerned with sound in art, rather than sound art per se; here, sound art’s blurred boundaries overlap and exchange influences with performance art, underground rock and experimental music, amongst others.
Not only does sound have a distinct bent towards the interdisciplinary, it also lends itself well to a variety of presentations, and modes of experience. Much of the show is divided into listening stations and sound scores. The former offers an altogether individual listening experience, with each recording neatly enclosed by headphones. Fittingly enough, the listening stations themselves, orderly ranks of blank little plinths, are visually indistinguishable from each other – there’s no telling what you’ll be getting into, whether harsh noise, delicate instrumentals, or ambient field recordings. Of course, you could always refer to the gallery layout plan, but where’s the fun in that?
If the word ‘score’ brings to mind neatly ruled sheets of paper with sensible arrangements of musical notes, the selection here ought to be more than enough to challenge the limits of that convention. For instance, Brian O'Reilly’s Linear Element resembles a sketch of some urban environment – perhaps shophouses, while Zai Tang’s Respect II (Bukit Brown Cemetery I), in ink and graphite, offers a gestural, expressive interpretation of the ambient sounds of that soon-to-be highway, which you can hear with the turntable provided.
In addition to the scores and listening posts, the show also features other situations and experiences of listening; the first you might encounter is Ang Song-Ming’s No Man’s Band, situated just outside the gallery’s doors. Drawn from recordings of rehearsals of Bowen Secondary School’s brass band rehearsals, the serendipitous discontinuities and dissonances of rehearsal seems to form a suitable contrast to the structured environment of Singapore’s secondary schools, while also suggesting the exploratory character of the show as a whole.
Like the transient, ephemeral nature of sound, the show itself isn’t static, featuring a programme of changing installations and live performances. The current temporary installation, Mohamad Riduan’s Hijrah atau Jihad, centres on row after row of simple motor-driven stringed instruments, controlled by a panel bristling with switches, powered by small photo-voltaic cells. The installation adds a layer of interactivity to the exhibition, enjoining the viewer to participate in modifying and composing the aural environment of the gallery.
Sound: Latitudes and Attitudes runs from 7 February to 16 March 2014 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Tuesdays to Sundays, from 10am to 6pm. Admission
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