Sound, the theme of this year’s exhibition program, is a fundamental means of artistic expression, like previous themes of color and structure. This aspect of the visual arts is also known as sound art, a term that embraces a wide spectrum including composed sounds as well as sounds from nature and everyday experience. As this year’s theme, it also encompasses a reflection on rhythms, words, and conceptual contexts in other fields of art.
Sound is a relatively new element in the fine arts, which have traditionally been highly visually oriented. The predominant and longstanding notion of fine arts as a term spanning painting, graphic works, and sculpture, was first challenged in the early twentieth century. Aspects of other arts such as literature, theater, and music, long kept separate, were welcomed into the visual arts. Even today the differentiation between performance and theater, sound art and music, cinema and video art is an interesting topic. At the same time, areas of exploration bordering on other art forms, such as research and design, are productive sources of interest, from which visual art has repeatedly drawn strength and fresh inspiration.
In the early twentieth century, the concept of music was expanded to include noises and sound effects. Also new fields of art were developed that aimed to generate synesthesia, the involvement of multiple sensory organs in the enjoyment of art. Famous examples include Kurt Schwitters’ Dadaistic Ursonate, Luigi Russolo’s futuristic musical manifesto, The Art of Noises, the music instruments invented by the Russian avant-garde such as the theremin, and early kinetic works of art. These developments in art were fed by the mercurial progress and rapid spread of new sound and film technologies.
An iconic figure in sound art was the American John Cage, who is considered a founder of the happening movement beginning in the 1950s. The neo-avant-garde and Fluxus movements were highly influential in establishing new art forms in which sound plays a fundamental role: from performance to sound poetry, sound installations, and intermedial art, in which technology played an increasingly important role. As the notion of an expanded definition of art developed and as time-based media became more important, sound became an established art form.
A fundamental change in the visual art of the twentieth century was an increased interest in the senses and the individual as a whole becoming the focus of artistic strategies—from seeing to touch, hearing, scent, and taste and even the mental capacity for imagination, ideas, concepts, and an extended context. Although visual impressions apparently make up a major part of human perception, one can close one’s eyes but not one’s ears. Our fundamental sense of wellbeing is much more strongly influenced by sound than people are generally aware. Even what one might consider silence still has different tonal qualities. Due to the physical structure of the ears as sensors of air pressure and sound waves, our sense of perception changes depending on whether we are outdoors, in an enclosed space, or close to certain materials. It is no coincidence that people with vision impairments are able to perceive objects and spaces by means of echoes and surrounding noises.
Sound encompasses a broad range of possibilities: sounds in nature, the sounds unique to certain objects, intentionally produced sounds, the tonal qualities of certain materials, electronic frequencies (analogue and digital), etc. The ways of presenting sound are also diverse: as part of an installation, with recordings, through live performances, and with sound-producing machines. Sound does not always have to be heard. An important aspect of sounds is their rhythms, which can be transposed, carried out, and even visualized in other fields of art. Last but not least, words also are a component of sound; even written words echo in the human brain when read. The human systems of tonal communication include both early drum signals and the rhythm of the Morse code. Even the Bible states: “In the beginning was the word”—also a reference to the fundamental significance of sound. Not only religion but also science describes the creation of the word with a sonic effect: the Big Bang.Eike Berg