Monday, 15 May 2017

Glasshouse Effect

Nothing like the sound of cracking glass to make one’s senses suddenly on edge, even more so if one finds oneself hearing that sound whilst standing inside a giant domed-glass structure! Though fear-not impending doom, for this was the sound installation of German born artist, LotharBaumgarten [1944] exhibited in the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid’s Retiro Park. Phew!
The impressive 22 metres high glass and iron, birdcage-like structure built in the 19th century to exhibit the flora and fauna of the Philippines (Spain’s last colony) is now used by the Reina Sofia Gallery to host temporary exhibitions. Between November 3rd 2016 and April 16th 2017, Lothar Baumgarten’s sound piece, ‘The ship is going under, the ice is breaking through’ was installed in this space. Amid the more permanent cultural highlights that Madrid has to offer; Picasso’s Guernica, Goya, Bosch and Velázquez, I was fortunate enough to discover and experience this work first-hand.
Firstly, the Palacio de Cristal is a spectacular space. Architecturally and visually pleasing, like walking inside a giant bird-cage or greenhouse, one is ever conscious upon stepping inside, that it is made of glass the surrounding trees and park outside framed from the inside, outside; greenish tinged light and warmth floods in somehow creating a phenomenological illusion of filling the vast space that is, other than a few chairs and the bodies of the people that occupy it, physically empty. Though one cannot escape the feeling of containment created by the skeletal ribs that form the iron framework on which that glass is supported, they create their own architecture of shadows across the floor. It is refreshing to be in a space this big and imposing yet to have ‘nothing’ in it, and by nothing I mean, no sculptures, no stuff, no physical things, artefacts or objects which would in some ways only distract from the grand and interesting visuals of the space itself. In a capitalist culture obsessed with products and production I feel increasingly drawn to art that uses existing space, material or subject matter without need to occupy it with too much (if at all) physical ‘stuff’. I recall Rita Mcbride’s laser installation within the carnivorous belly of Liverpool’s Toxteth reservoir and Susan Philpsz’s sound installations under bridges. Pieces that relate to their context and enhance it, make it accessible and seen with fresh-eyes without them intruding, adorning or infiltrating the space in a lumpy or materialistic way. Sound and light animate and create atmosphere or thought in these places in a far more experiential way.
All this spectacle and I have not even begun writing about the actual work yet. Though with sound it is perhaps hard to know where the work begins and ends, is it with the space in which the sound is heard, or is it the actual sound itself? Probably a combination of both. The ‘sound’ in this instance being that of cracking ice as it thaws on the Hudson river, New York, where the artist works. It cleverly creates the illusion, in the context of the Palacio de Cristal, of the sound of glass breaking, the threat of collapse physically immanent. It is a slow, suspenseful sound rather than the more immediate sound of the shattering of glass. Given Baumgarten’s practice of subverting the Westernised view of the world and the dialectical relationship between nature and culture it is an appropriate use of sound and context. The context of this Spanish structure built to display and organise the flora and fauna from the Philippines, a very Westernised construct and an institute of power, wealth and classification is given a very natural and dystopian sound piece that threatens to destroy the building itself whilst mocking us, in that it is all, in fact a hoax. The glass isn’t really breaking but the structures, systems and monuments that we build are in constant flux. The accompanying pamphlet handed to visitors like myself explains that it is,  
‘a tonal analogy for the crashing stocks and assets of the insatiable ‘shark trading’ of financial markets; it concerns greedy speculation about unlimited economic growth and the resulting impact on the dramatically changing global climate.’
Indeed, or perhaps, just as we have recovered from realising that the glass above our heads is not breaking, an even heavier foreboding beckons, that this sound; not of glass but ice, becomes the weighty realisation of the thawing and melting of glaciers and global warming. The immediate localised threat taken away, the sense of the fragility of a much greater, global threat, heightened.

“This melting ice is at odds with the sun that floods the Palacio with light, ...yet there is a logic here too. Something is breaking, melting, disappearing in plain sight, though it goes unnoticed. Effects of actions that cannot be seen can be felt and heard elsewhere, even while we might pretend otherwise. The title of the work speaks explicitly of disaster, one that has many keen resonances – past and present, real-life and literary, economic, ecological, social, philosophical and physical disasters – all are all bound up in this.”  –Anneka French
Such is the work of Lothar Baumgarten whom has been working since the sixties but only just entered my periphery of art knowledge (I apologise, it is an ever increasing field). I am impressed at how this piece operates on so many levels, from the bodily effect it has on the viewer (an initial sense of panic soon replaced by one of laughter or relief) to the almost political affect it has on the context within which it is meant to occupy. One of his previous works titled, ‘Unsettled objects’ 1968-70 involved looking at how ethnographic museums, including an all time favourite of mine, Pitt Rivers and how they ‘frame the viewer’s perception through the manner in which their objects are displayed’. I only wish I had known of this before as it would have been so apt during a project that involved looking at museum modes of classification at the Somerset Heritage Centre.
For me personally this work marks a shift in how, perhaps, as I’ve grown older I have become more critical, more politically and globally conscious, less concerned with the production of youth, obsessed with making and churning physical artefacts  out. Now I feel more conscientious of process and ‘need’ to make, instead increasingly interested in minimal states, self-sustaining means of producing and work that responds or highlights to the beauty, intrigue or nature of what already exists. There was a time when I could never have dreamed that a mere sound piece alone would move me to such provocations; I am humbled and pleased that my tastes and understanding of art are ever evolving.

Please watch the video below to hear it for yourself.

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