Reviewed by Lauren Mackler
When you think about it, Waiting is a kind of Silence… In 2001, I was 19. I took a class in Art Theory and one Tuesday morning we watched Not For Sale: Feminist Art in America. A woman rocked, arms crossed, reciting a sequence of highlights from a young girl’s life introducing each sentence with the word “waiting”. Waiting to get my period, waiting to fall in love, waiting to be kissed… It was a monotonous, predictable, list of landmarks. But I could relate. The performance’s pace increased, anxiety rose in turn. It didn’t seem that as she “got older,” waiting was going to stop. The performance (by Faith Wilding in 1972 during Womenhouse) is a monument in feminist art history, it speaks to generations of women held back in their potential. And although the work is pivotal for women, what makes it really good, beyond politics, is that this “condition,” if you will, is applicable to a larger context. Waiting is a mind-set. The condition is universal.
Here is the thing, I hate waiting. I hate lines and dead-time between meetings. I hate it so much and yet, all the same, I am fixated. If you tell me you’re going to come home in an hour, I loose my focus, I start to drift, to stall, to break. I slip into a state between productive and at rest. A little bit of neither. I idle.
In case you have not felt this before I’ll try to describe it for you: This “space”, we’ll call it space, is no bigger than an unwanted bubble of air between a wall and it’s wallpaper. It smells stale, it’s uncomfortably hot and, of course, it has no sound.
Here is my delinquent review of Silence for your journal.
My initial, and quickly dismissed idea, was to send you nothing. zilch. Or maybe a series of images, but no words, to stand in as my review. Thankfully, this was quickly dismissed as cliché, of the bad kind, and I set about the task I had really been charged with: providing you with (my) insight on the book. The deadlined rushed up on me, I missed it, missed it’s extension, missed the next one and the following. I started to avoid you, first online and then in life. You stopped asking. I felt terrible, small, sticky and disappointing.
I tried new things. Like writing on the couch, on the stairs, in the bathroom. I ate first, then I tried eating “after” as a reward. I made a list:
1.) Moments of note in Silence
(or two things worth mentioning and eventually to be included in the review)
[(or how a catalogue deals with communicating phenomena)]
The first: Between 1978 and 1979, the Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh, best known perhaps for his one year performances, locked himself in cage, 11’6″ x 9′ x 8′ in size. The piece was a series of negatives: He didn’t speak, read, write, listen to the radio or watch TV. A friend came once a day to tend to the most basic needs such as food delivery and waste removal.
In the pages of Silence the year boils down to the following: 1. The letter of intent from the artist, a statement explaining his actions, “I, Sam Hsieh, plan to do a one year performance piece to begin on September 30, 1978 […] I shall seal myself in my studio, in solitary confinement inside a cell-room measuring 11’6″ x 9′ x 8′ […]” 2. A notarized letter by an attorney confirming the veracity of his account. 3. Two almost identical pictures of the artist, side by side, dated one year apart, in which — save for his hair’s length — he looks unchanged. It is his apparent unchanged-ness which is of note.*
The second: I couldn’t think of anything to say about Silence so I went to see the exhibition. The Berkley Museum is a stunning building, a gem of brutalist architecture (some simply call it modern actually, but trust me “brutalist” fits.) It opened in 1970 as an attachment to the university, it is an invaluable resource to art-lovers though surprisingly inconspicuous to the rest of the student body who couldn’t tell me where to go even when I stood on the terrace asking. “What museum?” the kid said. In the 2000s it was deemed seismically unsafe and has been preparing a move for fall of 2014. All this to say, that with a little luck, the museum was closed when we visited. The floors were dimly lit. The gallery attendant walked ahead of us, flipping one switch at a time, room by room. We passed by Marcel Duchamp and Christian Marclay and René Magritte. We ascended through the platforms of galleries until the last room, which — the attendant apologetically explained — couldn’t be lit during off-hours. We looked over at the dark space — and in exchange the gallery echoed back to us the hollow sound of a hammer interrupted by the tinkling of two nails hitting the floor. Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of its own Making (1961) could not be turned off and so in the darkness of the closed museum, the little cube played its sound alone in the room, on an endless loop.
In the catalogue you will find a photograph of wooden box. Quiet as a trout, still as ink fixed on paper.
2.) The Object
(The things that make the catalogue a catalogue)
[(or the ways in which the document could be an experience)]
I am not condemning the makers of this catalogue for making a silent book. As my editor and friend Andrew would quote: “be angry at the sun.” Paper doesn’t talk, it swooshes, it creaks. More often than not, it is polite and so predictably Silence itself, as an object, is classic and civil. It contains 150 pages, 3 essays, 72 pictures of works and 29 artists. The cover is wrapped in light gray canvas. On it, the title (Silence, of course) is printed in white, presumably made to “disappear”.
Absence is another kind of silence, but that is a different essay all around.
With this second point in my list, I feel I have satisfied my required function. You now know pretty much all you need to know about Silence. Everything left from here on out is speculation, subjectivity and self-importance. You are invited to leave the review quietly through the illuminated exit sign behind the De Chirico.
3.) The Content
(Writing in Silence)
[(if a piece of writing is in a book, and no one is there to read it, does it make a sound?)]
You’re still here.
As mentioned earlier, Silence contains three pieces of writing: The essays are clear, smart and specialized. The first is by Toby Kamps (Modern and Contemporary Art Curator of the Menil collection) is a Taxonomy of Silences (like: Synthetic Silence, Symbolic Silence, Surreal Silence…), the second, by Jenni Sorkin (Critic and Curator, current PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University), is a Chronology of Silence in Art. In his, Steve Seid (Video Curator at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) at the Berkeley Art Museum) focuses on Silence in Experimental Film and Video Practice.** All three begin by referencing John Cage’s 4’33” which is the inspiration of the show, along with the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. I trust you know the work.
This is it: The review I mean. The part at which I say what I have been wanting to say to you. The show was wonderful, the catalogue is comprehensive but not experiential and I am waiting. Waiting for a catalogue (or all catalogues) to convey the layers of complexity that exist in each one of the exhibited works, and this, compounded by being installed in the same room side by side. Arguably this is not the mission of catalogues (from Latin catalogus, from Greek katalogos, a list, a register, enrollment, to say or to count… completely). But I feel in opposition to the finite nature of creating a taxonomy which will comfortably liken works made from wildly ranging psyches and intents. The collision of pictures and text does not suffice as a document of the exhibition, this notion devalues the book, it’s potential. Now once again: I am not condemning the makers of this book for whom it was never the question that the book itself would be an extension of the exhibition, an artwork. But I am petitioning for a new kind of feminism, no humanism, which requires the best of all genders, objects included (I am French, we extend gender to objects). I am arguing here, in my last few words, for the format to convey an experience, to insure that every catalogue challenges the complicated phenomena of an experience and the memory we are left with after we leave the perimeter of the museum.
So here I am and here it is, inappropriately late and tangential, my review of Silence.
*In between 1978 and 1979 a few events of note happened in the world: Hollywood film director Roman Polanski skips bail and flees to France, after pleading guilty to charges of engaging in sex with a 13-year-old girl; The Copyright Act of 1976 takes effect, making sweeping changes to United States copyright law; Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, a critic of the Nicaraguan government, is assassinated. Riots erupt against Somoza’s government; The People’s Republic of China lifts a ban on works by Aristotle, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens; American porn publisher Larry Flynt is shot and paralyzed in Lawrenceville, Georgia; Operation Litani: Israeli forces invade Lebanon; Somalia and Ethiopia signed a truce to end the Ethiopian-Somali War; Serial killer David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” is sentenced to 365 years in prison; Iranian Army troops open fire on rioters in Teheran, killing 122, wounding 4,000; Vietnam launches a major offensive against the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, leading to to regime’s end.
Unchanged is the last thing the world could have been described as.
**The Pacific Film Archive is the sister institution to BAM and an incredible program of films and videos accompanied the exhibition. A list well worth sifting through for reference is on the site. The program presented, amongst many, the work of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Nathaniel Dorsky, Nam June Paik, Steve Roden, Barry Spinello, Ingmar Bergman and more.
Toby Kamps and Steve Seid, Silence, (Yale University Press, 2012)
Images: Cover and from the interior of Silence, arranged by Lauren Mackler