In Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, the main character tells his young acolyte, “Silence is a fragile thing. One loud noise and it’s gone.” On my way to the UC Berkeley Art Museum’s Silence exhibition, I had a related thought: What would it be like to view an exhibition about silence in galleries full of walking, talking, sniffling, rustling people? Would they break my contemplative experience of the work? As an art patron I admit that I am regularly annoyed by other museum- and gallery-goers; and as Murphy’s Law would have it, the day I visited the museum was the monthly free day, attracting a larger-than-usual crowd. As misguided as it may sound, I wanted to see Silence in silence, and what I got was something different—and far richer.1
Of course, John Cage (whose innovative 1952 work 4’33”inspired the exhibition) declared that there is no such thing as silence: “There is always something to see, something to hear.”2 This was certainly true for the experimental films that were shown at the Pacific Film Archive earlier in February, as part of the exhibition’s related programming. The “silence” in the theater during films such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) was filled with noise: the hum of the HVAC system, the shifting of patrons in their seats, the occasional stifled cough or sneeze. But more than that, the films made me aware of what I was not hearing, which is to say, a tightly controlled soundtrack meant to direct my attention in a particular direction.
Some of the films’ lack of integral noise created an alternative experience, such as the state of synesthetic sound in Steve Roden’s four words for four hands (apples.mountains.over.frozen) (2006), a film in which handmade dots of colored marker flashed on the screen in ever-changing patterns; in my head I could hear horns and other brass instruments, depending on the bright colors that burst into view. Similarly, Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film(1962–64)—what the film curator Steve Said called “the most Cageian film in the series” during the press preview—changed my consciousness. The 8-minute projection consisted of ambient dust and debris on the surface of the film; random dark speckles popped and disappeared and linty threads seemed to wiggle their way across the brightly lit screen. As I concentrated on the chance animation of minute fragments, it felt as though time was stretching to accommodate my focus. Instead of being bored and restless, I became relaxed, content to watch this meditative flow, and suddenly aware of my own breath and presence in the space.
Viewing the works installed across the street at the museum, I had a more intellectual experience. In the first gallery, Andy Warhol paintings—two Big Electric Chair works from 1967 and Little Electric Chair from 1965—hang amid a suite of canvases by Christian Marclay that isolate part of the original Warhol image and reproduce it in different colors. The silkscreened word silence on a pink canvas is shockingly different than the same word on a silver canvas, exemplifying how much color affects interpretation. I spent most of my time in this space, looking at the long vitrine in the middle of the floor that contains Marclay’s notes and sketches documenting his labor through the ideas on the works in the room. The notes, which include Internet printouts about the death penalty, are chilling.
Silence, however, is not always about literal death, and there are enough works in this exhibition to remind viewers of its connection to a figurative one. Joseph Beuys’s Das Schweigen (1973) consists of five reels of 35mm film that have been varnished and galvanized in copper and zinc—forever noiseless and unable to perform the task for which they were made. Likewise, Marcel Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise (original 1916; 1964 version on display) is a ball of twine that contains a hidden object in its center; the ball is squeezed between two brass plates screwed together so that the viewer never sees the mute object within. And Doris Salcedo’s concrete-and-fabric-filled domestic furniture inUntitled (2001) has both a literal and figurative weightiness that gives the work melancholic intensity.
There are also plenty of works that are not silent at all, such as Marcel Broodthaers’s Speakers’ Corner (1972), a 16-minute black-and-white film of the artist writing on a chalkboard in a park while the London public heckles him. Amalia Pica’s Sorry for the Metaphor (2005) is an arrangement of A3-size photocopies glued to the wall to make a grainy image of a woman standing on a cliff holding a megaphone in her hand. Though the work itself is noiseless, it implies speech—an act that has either just occurred or is about to commence. The final work in the exhibition, tucked away in the lower hall between the stairs and the café, encapsulates this balance perfectly. Kurt Mueller’s Cenotaph(2011) is an old-fashioned jukebox with ninety-nine recordings of silence performed by crowds to honor, for example, the victims of natural disasters or acts of terrorism. For a quarter, one can listen to the silence observed for the Christ Church earthquake in New Zealand or the Charndon High School shooting in Ohio. The recordings include the moments directly before and after the silences: the listener hears the spoken tribute, the hush (which is, of course, not truly silent at all), and the official end of the silence. I surprised myself by being moved by the silence effected for Princess Diana in Hyde Park in 1997: all pomp and ceremony, it concluded with the bells of Westminster Abbey tolling, encapsulating a moment when royalty, celebrity, and death collided.
Silence is a well-rounded exhibition that concerns itself with the occasions when a lack of noise might be necessary or appropriate. When are we moved to be silent? When do social, psychological, and emotional forces demand silence? When does silence show strength, and when does it signal complicity? As I left the museum, I heard dancers rehearsing in the atrium, a large group gathering around a docent at the ticket desk, fussy children in strollers, and the echoing noises of an installation being built on the first floor. It was the opposite of silence: it was moving, breathing—living—and I was glad to be a part of it.
SILENCE IS ON VIEW AT THE UC BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE THROUGH APRIL 28, 2013.
1. I rarely write exhibition reviews in the first person, but I think this exhibition presents a case for outright acknowledgement of a highly subjective experience. After all, silence can be a balm to the soul or a horror to be avoided at any cost, depending on individual taste: one person might call for silence when she wants to be alone with her thoughts, while another might associate a lack of noise with the harsh punishment of solitary confinement. I am firmly in the former camp. In fact, I often prefer silence—or as close it as possible—to any other option.
2. John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage(Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 8.