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Screaming "Silence"

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

In the natural world, silence can mean all the other herd animals are frozen in fear and your oblivious grass-munching ass is about to get eaten. In the human world, we link silence to things like tranquil contemplation, mourning and spirituality. The exhibition "Silence" at The Menil Collection presents a diverse range of works that all in some way address ideas and aspects of silence.

Curated by Toby Kamps, "Silence" illustrates that, barring deafness, true silence is impossible. It's not just people shifting around or sneezing in church, or the hum of the air conditioner or the chirping of birds that fills "silent" moments. Even if you shell out cash for an isolation-tank experience, you can't buy silence. Your own breath, your heart or your ears themselves create sound. Our concept of "silence" is about our associations and expectations rather than any attainable reality.

Kurt Mueller's Cenotaph is a CD-playing jukebox the artist has filled with recorded "moments of silence." A cenotaph is a monument to the dead, and the glowing Rock-Ola "Legend" is filled with commemorative silences for loss. Many of them are the official kind, opening and closing with some politician's speech, the silence punctuated by people coughing and babies crying.

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 are quarters lined up along Mueller's jukebox so visitors can play their selections. You press buttons and the pages flip, more physical than flat electronic screens for mp3s. There's silence for Tupac, fallen soldiers, terror and earthquake victims, mining accidents and Dale Earnhardt. I picked the one for Kim Jong-il; I wondered what a moment of silence for a dictator who starved millions of people to death sounds like. It has to be one of the loudest "moments of silence" ever. It's a three-minute air horn blast. It echoes through the quiet museum, and it is somehow fitting that Kim Jong-il would be as oppressive and grating in his death as he was in life.

If any place should be silent it's Chernobyl, and the ghostly exclusion zone is the setting for Jacob Kirkegaard's film AION (2006). (The title is Greek for "infinity" or "eternity.") The Soviets moved everybody out of the zone (now 1,660 square miles) after the nuclear reactor disaster. But the area is teaming with wildlife now — in addition to a few hardy and rebellious elderly babushkas who moved back home. (Once you've survived Stalin and the Nazis, what's a megadose of radiation?) Kirkegaard set up microphones and video cameras in four formerly public locations, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a concert hall and a village church. All of them evidence the mold, peeling paint, dust and rot of a quarter century of abandonment.

Shown in what seems to be accelerated time lapse, the sun moves over the rooms and across the floors, illuminating and enlivening the decay with dappled sunlight. They're very beautiful in a Detroit, ruin-porn kind of way. And they also look pretty much stripped clean for places that were supposed to have been quickly and completely abandoned. There are gaping holes in the church's iconostasis where the icons would have been. (I'm thinking pre- and post-Soviet economic conditions led to a lot of radioactive artifacts and bric-a-brac making their way into art markets and flea markets.)

To create the audio, Kirkegaard took ten-minute sound recordings in the spaces and then played them back into the rooms and re-­recorded again and again, which concentrated and distorted the ambient sound into an otherworldly hum. One wonders if the sound of the reactor's concrete sarcophagus cracking is in the condensed mix of bird and bug sounds, undetectable to the human ear. But it is time that truly dominates the video. The two and a half decades of the structures' physical decay is a microsecond compared to the 720,000 or so years necessary for the reactor's nuclear fuel to decay. The radiation is an invisible, silent and deadly presence in the videos.

Next to the entrance to Kirkegaard's piece and focusing on more minor tragedy is Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset's The Date, (2009). It's a video phone next to a door. It seemingly monitors the street outside, where a handsome young man stands with a single rose, waiting to be buzzed in — which never happens. Pick up the handset and you hear the street noise and buzzer as he waits in silence, shifting his feet, looking expectant, nervous and then dejected as no one answers. He walks off. It's a poignant little bit of grainy black-and-white footage that captures a host of human emotions.

David Hammons's iconic Injustice Case (1970) is about an oppressive and forcible silence. It's a "body print" of a man bound and gagged to a chair. Made with margarine and powdered pigment, it looks like an X-ray except you can see his clothes and Afro. The image references the 1969 trial of Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. The judge ordered Seale gagged and chained to his chair because of his courtroom outbursts. A silenced and restrained defendant is associated with oppressive regimes; here Hammons has framed his image with the American flag.

Documentation of Tehching Hsieh's One Year Performance 1978-79 presents photos and documents recording an extreme silence by choice. The artist spent a year in solitary confinement, locked in a cage in the corner of his studio with a sink, a cot, a mirror and a bucket. In his typed statement, he writes, "I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television, until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979." A friend, apparently a quite good one, was charged with removing his shit bucket, washing his clothes and bringing him food. The artist could be viewed by the public once or twice a month for brief periods each time.

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.

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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