‘Listening’ is the third in the series of Curatorial Open exhibitions, part of the scheme set up to support independent UK-based curators. The winning curator Sam Belinfante has said the show is ‘concerned with the act of listening rather than merely its aural objects’.
Visitors stand with their ears to Amalia Pica’s wall of upturned glasses, unwittingly listening to the sounds of the lavatories on the other side, pulling comically exaggerated poses of listening-in. At a desk in the corner, complete with aspidistra, someone sits as though on hold at the end of an official-looking red telephone. The phone, made by Carey Young, puts the listener in the pleasingly ridiculous pose of listening to snippets of recordings from protest marches (‘for protest chanting press 1.’) There are a few sets of headphones dotted about but the listening is done for the most part communally as the works and their sounds loop in and out of order as visitors move around the space. It can be difficult to tune in and out of these various soundscapes but one imagines this difficulty is part of the intention of the curation. Listening always involves filtering things out as well as in.
Laure Provost’s witty and surreal speaking butter pat, electric cigarette and spotlight, talk, tease, and trick. They subvert silence, yes, but they seem to direct our attention to the drama of presentation (whether of objects or people, whether in an office, at a party or in a gallery) rather than listening per se. The flirtatious, insecure (but somehow also insouciant) spotlight is a riot.
In another room, in front of a bed of cushions, Mikhail Karikis’s film ‘Sea Women’ plays on a loop in alternating tandem with Imogen Stidworthy’s ‘Sacha’. ‘Sea Women’ tells the story of pearl-fishers on a small South Korean island. This group of elderly women make their living as free-divers and were first encountered by the artist when he mistook them for a colony of seals as they emerged from the shoreline in front of him.
The series of short films that were the result of this chance encounter are incredible, each documenting an aspect of the women’s work and the island they live on. We see them eating hot bowls of noodles in between dives, shelling and shucking their catch, and singing as they work. Their voices are reedy, pitched like children’s but with a timbre that is far richer. Percussion is formed from the banging of pots and pans. We watch as they wrest starfish from the surface of the seabed. The method of this diving is taught between generations, passed to girls when they are young but learnt over lifetimes. The women dive for eight hours a day, descending to depths of 20 metres at a time.
Karikis seems just as in awe of the practice and its breathing method, Sumbi Sori, as he is by the sound and sights of the sea itself as it washes again and again against the shore. The floor-based screen containing loudspeakers is particularly effective here. Sumbi Sori is the name for the sound of the breathing as well as the verb ‘to overcome’. Karikis thinks of it as a non-verbal expression of trauma and the passing on of that memory. The women tell him they have two fears: the nets of fishermen, and their own greed. Asked why they don’t take advantage of the modern development of scuba gear and breathing apparatus they reply, ‘well then we wouldn’t be sea women’.
Christian Marclay’s ‘Sound Holes’ is a series of 21 photogravures showing the speaker sections of intercom systems. In lifts, at the foot of tall buildings, at the mouth of buzzer systems are these beautiful and functional collections of holes in metal boxes. There is something sad about these pictures; they are full of a bleak expectancy. Like little open mouths. The curator says they remind him of a choir.
It is always wary-making to be told what an exhibition is concerned with. It sets up the worry that had you not been told, you would not have been able to figure it out. The most impressive and most arresting of the pieces in this show were not those that addressed the topic of listening in any direct way, and would have been equally as affecting elsewhere. ‘Listening’ does suffer therefore from a rattle bag sense of accumulation, which is not to say it is not well put together, but rather that it might have been more meaningful to let the audience approach it without the somewhat effortful attempt at summary. The act of listening is both too vague and too all encompassing to be a useful or insightful hook for this collection of work which is well worth seeing and attempting to decipher for yourself.
The show also contains work by Ed Atkins, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Ragnar Kjartansson, Lina Lapelyte, Haroon Mirza, Max Neuhaus, Katie Peterson, Hannah Rickards, Prem Sahib and Anri Sala. The exhibition will be at Baltic 39 until 11th January at which point it will move to the Bluecoat in Liverpool.