Sounding The Body Electric
Calvert 22 Gallery, London
26 June - 25 August 2013
Review by Elizabeth Homersham
White cube aesthetics are boldly rejected in ‘Sounding The Body Electric’, a group show of more than twenty solo artists, duos and collectives active in art and music in the Eastern Bloc. Red, blue and yellow walls provide the backdrop to sound and visuals presented on the ground floor, while purple and turquoise set the tone below. Curators David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk issue a colourful reminder: in the 1957-1984 period on which they focus, Eastern Europe was without the market context in which the white walled western gallery evolved. In the countries represented here - Poland, Hungary, former Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union - artists and composers had access to hi-tech means of experimentation (radio and film equipment), to be used ‘freely’ within nation specific bounds.
Poland’s progressive position within the Bloc is conveyed via a flatscreen monitor installed at the beginning of the exhibition. ‘Experimental Studio of Polish Radio’ (1963) provides valuable insight into the official line on experimentation. A subtitled voice-over narrates a minute’s worth of black and white archive footage of the studio, affirming the utopian pleasures of subverting sonic conventions. As two men extract jarring, unearthly sounds from bulky reels of recording equipment the video concludes: ‘Some call it a cacophony of decibels; others, a joyful sound of the future’.
Post Stalinism, great efforts were made to build experimental societies in which socialism could progress. The Experimental Studio of Polish Radio appears as an emblem of a correspondingly experimental culture in which exercising artistic freedom was not only condoned but generously subsidised by the state. The studio was multi-functional; catering for the production of musique concrete (displayed here in glass cabinets housing graphic scores), and serving a film industry glimpsed in a loop of one minute clips from the monotonous train ride animation ‘Podróz’ (1970), surreally psychedelic ‘Zupa’ (1974), and mad scientist series ‘Akademia Pana Kleksa’ (Mister Blot’s Academy, 1983). The limited duration of these excerpts is consistent with a successful attempt to retain the viewer’s attention throughout the show: no video or sound work exceeds fifteen minutes and many are shorter than five.
It is easy to lose track of time here nonetheless: documentary videos of extraordinary light shows performed at the Soviet Union’s Prometheus Institute, and a happening known as ‘5x’ (1966) demand repeated viewings. The latter, staged at Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery, conveys the principles of open form and space taken up by Oskar Hansen and Zofia Hansen in their unrealised architectural plans found next to the video documentation. In both drawings and happening the experience of the space is personalised; dependent on the viewer’s movements and interaction with the environment. In the collectively conceived ‘5x’, Kowalski, Krauze, Morel and Szubartowski provided metal barrels, sheets, hoops and tubes for the chaotic production of sound through sawing, beating and rolling. ‘Perhaps it’s a good idea’, a voice-over muses; ‘everyone often feels like bashing something loudly’.
Further into the ground floor gallery the less chaotic but equally destructive work of Czech Fluxus artist Milan Kni’ák is given pride of place. Wireless headphones hung on an empty plinth allow for a free moving listening and looking experience of ‘Destroyed Music’ (1963-1979). The sound of a proto-sampling technique achieved through burning, melting, painting and collaging vinyl is enriched by the presentation of the records themselves in ordered rows. Metallic paint renders one record gold while strings of bells and whistles hang from another.
‘O-pus’ (1972), a video collaboration installed on the same wall, at one point echoes Kni’ák’s rows of circular forms in repeated lines of typewritten ‘O’s’. The sound of ‘O-pus’ is produced vocally, however. As ‘O’s’ appear in large, sculptural, rotating forms and then as ink covering hands and feet like a disease, Hungarian artist Katalin Ladik expresses the ‘O’ in staccato rhythms, inward gasps and grating throat sounds, or again as high-pitched laughter and pleasurable ‘woahs’. Fellow Hungarian Endre Tót’s work comes to mind: though not known to employ sound he made prolific visual use of the ‘O’ in his work as a way of passing comment on the insidious censorship in operation during ‘Goulash Communism’. From the early 1960s until 1989, a ‘3 x T’ system was in place in Hungary, standing for ‘Türni, Tiltani, Támogatni’, or ‘Tolerate, Prohibit, Support’. As Ladik’s ten collage scores (‘Ausgewählte Volkslieder’/ (Selected Folk Songs, 1973-1975) testify through their incorporation of knitting diagrams and other images taken from women’s magazines, consumerism was known in ‘60s and ‘70s Hungary but in carefully administered forms.
Presumably, Ladik’s collages (found next to ‘O-pus’) were tolerated; the bright green, orange, pink and purple backgrounds onto which abstract arcs, triangles and textual snippets are stuck, betray a superficial joy in experimental society that the exhibition curators nostalgically share. Crowley and Muzyczuk have organized ‘Sounding The Body Electric’ according to a roughly chronological narrative describing early ‘exhilaration’ in sound/art experimentation, followed, post-Prague Spring, by an anxiously critical use of sound. The excitement of the former period is privileged: the corresponding works are presented on the ground floor in double the quantity of the more negative products of socialism found below.
And yet perhaps the works in the lower ground gallery leave a more lasting impression, rebalancing the curatorial narrative retrospectively. Maurer, Klausz and Jeney’s ‘Kalah’ (1980) and Robakowski’ and Rudnik’s ‘Dynamic Rectangle’ (1971) are pulsating abstract video works with accompanying soundtracks that almost deny one’s capacity for thought. Dissident Russian artists Komar & Melamid’s ‘Music Writing: Passport’ (1976) serves as a reminder of the travel restrictions placed on artists from the Bloc: on the occasion of Komar & Melamid’s first U.S. show, their work was allowed to travel but the artists were not. Approaching their situation with humour, Komar & Melamid composed a score by attributing each letter of the Russian passport with a musical value. ‘Who said bureaucracy was the enemy of culture’’ Crowley asked at an accompanying talk. Arguably, Vladan Radovanovic did: his ‘Voice from the Loudspeaker’ presents an aural portrait of a self-censored man alienated from his own voice. Radovanovic’s eerie conclusion decries ideological blurring of truth and untruth: ‘It’s true you can hear these words, but it will be untrue. / It is not true you can’t hear these words, but it will be’.