the art of noise

by william poundstone los angeles county museum on fire, 2013

This may be a trend in the making: museums of older art mounting contemporary sound installations. The Huntington recently closed Steve Roden’s “completely silenced,” an acoustic environment commissioned for the exhibition “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War.” This fall, New York’s Cloisters museum will present “Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet,” a forty-speaker installation that’s being billed as the first presentation of contemporary art at the Cloisters.

It’s nothing new that dead-white-guy museums are trying to mix it up with contemporary art. Many such installations are in the Jeff Koons-at-Versailles mode. The juxtapositions are supposed to be flashy, in-your-face, even scandalous. Of course, when you go a few notches down the food chain from Koons and Versailles—as to Lesley Vance and Ricky Swallow in the Huntington mansion —the shock-of-the-new angle wears thin.

The Roden piece might have been the Huntington’s first home run in the contemporary field. It was also self-effacing to the point of being subliminal. I’m sure some visitors left with no recollection of having experienced it at all. Roden provided an ambient soundscape for a room of  Alexander Gardner’s photographs of Antietam casualties. The title is taken from Matthew Brady, the photographic entrepreneur who published the work of Gardner and others. Roden layered tracks of bird song, cricket chirps, and diddley bow (a West African instrument used by American slaves) into the pauses in a recording of a witness to Lincoln’s assassination. The Huntington site has an excerpt with artist commentary. The overall effect is solemn, and it’s the complete opposite of, say, the soundtrack to Spielberg’s Lincoln. It doesn’t tell anyone what to feel. More museums should try something like it.