Silence, edited by Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art at The Menil Collection, accompanied an exhibition of the same name that explored the paradoxical nature of silence, a phenomenon which exists only in the vacuum of deep space. This means that, for us, true silence exists only in the imagination, since even in deafness we are plagued the incessant clamor of our own consciousness. The catalogue includes a forward by Josef Helfenstein, director of The Menil, and Lawrence Rider, director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, as well as essays by Kamps, Jenny Sorkin (assistant professor of contemporary art and critical studies at the University of Houston), and Steve Seid (video curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive).
Though elusive, silence, and the struggle to unlock its mysteries, is a pervasive theme in art, considered in relation to the quest to overcome emptiness and isolation and challenge death and oblivion. Though, in the words of John Cage, there is “no such thing” as silence, it is manifested symbolically in art, evoked visually and sonically to represent an ideal harmony as well as an existential anxiety. Kamps, Sorkin, and Seid write extensively about Cage’s 4’33”, perhaps the most pivotal deployment of silence in the history of art. In its first performance in 1952, pianist David Tutor closed and opened the keyboard at various intervals before a perplexed audience. A watershed event, 4’33” opened the door for works addressing “silence”—what it is, why it has the power to both intrigue and disquiet, and how it precipitates altered levels of consciousness and awareness. Though the pianist played no notes, the room was filled with a different kind of music—ambient sound. The music of incidental human voices, accompanied by the blowing wind and falling rain outside the concert hall, proved that silence is purely conceptual.
Kamps discusses two important influences on this work, including Cage’s visit to an anechoic chamber in 1951, during which he realized the impossibility of silence as he listened to his own breath and heartbeat amplified in the absence of any external noise. The second was Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, which Sorkin expands on in her essay. Many artists of the 1950s embraced Eastern philosophy in an effort to merge conscious experience and expression, inducing absorptive and almost meditative states in pursuit of greater awareness, mindfulness, and the dissolution of the ego. Yves Klein, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Robert Rauschenberg, whose “White Paintings” provide an example of silence evoked synaesthetically, all merged experience and expression with an interest in transcending visual and aural language. As a form of tabula rasa, the White Paintings have, in Rauschenberg’s words, “the fullness of nothing,” yet they are “hypersensitive,” capturing, like 4’33”, what is experienced in their emptiness—shadows cast by viewers and, perhaps, projections of individual consciousness in the absence of any recognizable representation of the external world.
Though “silence” can facilitate transcendence, it is provokes anxiety and reminds us of our mortality. Contemporary artists, including Mark Manders and Doris Salcedo (both featured in the show), underscore these discomforting associations. As Kamps, quoting a Cistercian monk, notes, “Silence is a place for bumping into yourself.” It is the sound of our own inner monologues spouting forth from the nothingness, at once enlightening and terrifying. Silence can underscore our isolation in a world where language is ultimately useless as a tool to describe the nuanced abstractions of our thoughts. It can also be used as a punishment, as in solitary confinement, shunning, or self-inflicted hermitage. It is the alpha and omega of life, that great nothingness from which we emerge and return—the oblivion to which we are destined.
In discussing the paradox of silence—that it is only real in the imagination and can never be truly experienced—and its dual nature—transcendent and terrifying, everything and nothing—Silence speaks to today’s aurally cluttered and over-stimulated world. “Silence” is more elusive, feared, and desperately needed than ever. The catalogue draws attention to how silence is both a preoccupation and an unattainable goal in art and life, and how, in our continuing search for the “eternal sublime,” we echo the secrets of silence uncovered by past explorers. My only criticism is that the contributions by Sorkin and Seid read like footnotes to Kamps’s powerful and comprehensive essay.
By Amanda Hickok