Internationaler Kunstkritikerverband, Sektion der BRD

The Exceptional Exhibition of 2012 – Sounds Like Silence

The vote for the ‘Exceptional Exhibition of 2012’ went to Sounds Like Silence. John Cage / 4’33’’ / Silence Today, which was on view at Dortmund’s Hartware MedienKunstVerein (HMKV) from 25 August 2012 to 6 January 2013.

The exhibition was co-curated by Inke Arns, artistic head of the HMKV, and Dieter Daniels,  Professor of Art History and Media Theory at the HGB in Leipzig. Premiered on 29 August, 1952, the eponymous, legendary Cage piece, 4'33" provided the show’s point of departure. 2012 was the sixtieth anniversary of this pioneering work; it was also the hundredth anniversary of John Cage’s birth. Yet Sounds Like Silence was not a classical John Cage exhibition. By contrast, the conceptual concentration on 4’33”, where silence is performed over several movements, invokes consideration of a number of different notions of silence – and of its counterpart, that is, of sound, including noise – in their aesthetic, social and political relevance. What was silence in 1952, and what does it signify today? How intense is our desire for silence and in this age of media noise and rising noise pollution, what if anything do we still perceive? How much silence can we bear? And – who is able to be silent, who remains silent and still and remains unheard?

These were some of the questions taken up and developed further by Sounds Like Silence in a dense, utterly stimulating exhibition. Particularly memorable were the links struck from historical concepts of silence to topical issues, and the happy alternation between various ‘focal lengths’, in other words, an emphatic focus on detail and the larger questions. Thus the exhibition for the first time pooled all the scores and all the variations and derivations of Cage’s piece that he completed between 1962 and 1992. At the same time, the show placed Cage’s work into a context with other, contemporaneous works of literature, dance, visual art and film, such as Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, which Cage regarded as a visual equivalent of acoustic silence, or Guy Debord’s film, Hurlements en faveur de Sade, with its radical denial of the visual. From these historical standpoints, the exhibition set out to retrace the most diverse contemporary reinterpretations and updates of 4’33” until today, no matter whether in Manon de Boer’s suggestive film, Two times 4’33, Jens Heitjohann’s new interactive version of the work in the urban spaces of Dortmund, or the video recording of a four-hour-thirty-three-minute happening performed in a flat in Moscow in 1985 by the Collective Actions group, founded by Andrei Monastyrski. As varied as the works themselves were, they were all linked by their examination of the current meaning of the concepts of silence and noise in our culture, all the way to questions of the ecology of sound, an issue of constantly increasing importance. 

The catalogue for that exhibition also merits singling out. In analogy to the show, it combines historical texts with essays by contemporary authors from the fields of art history, musicology and media theory. Sounds Like Silence is an eminent example of a soundly researched and successfully choreographed exhibition that reviews historical stances for their current relevance, places currently acute issues into a greater historical, cultural and socio-political context, and has the courage to explore avenues as yet not secured. That is why it deserves the title of ‘Exceptional Exhibition of 2012’, which explicitly also acknowledges the excellence of the work of the HMKV overall.


Cologne, 25.01.2013
Astrid Wege

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