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Screaming "Silence"

The multifaceted show at the Menil, curated by Toby Kamps, offers an overabundance of riches.

While the silence in Hammons's work is enforced by the state, Hsieh's is enforced by the artist's own discipline. But the performance may also have been a manifestation of Hsieh's place in society; at the time, the artist was an illegal Taiwanese immigrant with apparently scant English. He'd been working as a dishwasher and cleaner. It's not just an artistic whim or mentally unstable act; Hsieh took control of his social marginalization and made it his own choice.

The godfather of all this silence is John Cage and his famed 1952 score 4'33". It usually involves the piano, with the pianist sitting at his instrument without playing for four minutes and 33 seconds. There isn't, of course, silence; the three "movements" simply frame the sounds in the room. The Menil has timed entries into a screening gallery presenting a 2008 film by Manon de Boer. The film includes two takes on a performance of the score; one is focused on the face of the pianist and includes the sounds in the room and of the rain outside. The other seems silent, the clicking of a chess clock inserted, marking the movements as the camera slowly pans the faces of the audience. This becomes unintentionally or maybe intentionally distracting; it was filmed in Brussels, and the audience consisted of young, serious, largely black-clad and arty-looking students. I just kept thinking about the kind of overly earnest audience that the Cage piece attracts. The idea of the piece is really enough. The film is more amusing because although the Menil heavily sound-insulated the screening room, Kim Jong-il's "moment of silence" can still be heard through it all.

"Silence" has an overabundance of riches. It includes the classic 1961 Robert Morris work Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. For those who missed it in art history, it is just that. The beautifully crafted wooden box includes audio with the "silence" of the studio, where the only sounds are the artist's labor. Then there is the frozen beauty of de Chirico's 1916 surrealist painting Melancholia, and the similarly airless 2011 sculptures by Mark Manders. "Silence" even has a work by Tino Sehgal, the almost mythic contemporary artist who does not allow documentation of his performances — the illustration in the catalog is a blank page. For Sehgal's Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000), a dancer is performing in a large, empty room throughout the opening hours of the exhibition. The dancer is apparently supposed to move slowly along the wall — referencing Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman performances. During my visits, I would have almost said they were asleep on the floor if it wasn't for a stiffly held limb here and there. There are scuff marks on the wall from the dancer's shoes. The silence is in the dancer's quiet control and concentration.

If any place should be silent, it's Chernobyl, the setting for Jacob Kirkegaard's film AION.
Jacob Kirkegaard
If any place should be silent, it's Chernobyl, the setting for Jacob Kirkegaard's film AION.

There is a lot of great stuff I haven't gotten to. And there are some pieces that are less impressive — I'm not so enamored of sound artist Steve Roden's paintings and sculpture (conceptually derived from Cage's 4'33") that I would have included three examples. And while I like the Warhol electric chair silk screens and Christian Marclay's works that hone in on the "silence" sign on the wall in Warhol's execution room, I don't think they need enough to fill a whole room — although the display case with Marclay's death penalty research is all too relevant here in Texas. But these aren't major complaints. Silence has been rewarding for Kamps; he's pulled together a rich and multifaceted show with so much more to see — and hear — or not.

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