Find Your Own Sound in This Tel Aviv Art Show

In this solo exhibition, which consists of audio machines and sound mechanisms, the artist tries to focus our attention on the way sounds are produced and received. But that’s also where the exhibition falters.

A work from Maya Dunietz’s exhibit, 'Sound Requires a Medium.'
Youval Hai

Hovering over the ground floor of the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv is a plastic cloud: 10,000 earbuds hang in the air, dangling from above at different heights. Proceeding from one set of earbuds to the next, the visitor hears diverse sounds (a horn, a whistle, a crinkling noise, a possible groan, maybe a faint creaking). Each set of earphones plays sound works from 20 channels, played by a mega-amplifier that’s located on the upper floor, and each viewer/listener can create his or her own sound, combining a number of channels of his choice, a rhythm of his own, patience of his own. Standing beneath this vast jumble, and moving from one set of earbuds to another, he can generate organization, order and harmony amid the chaos. Each viewer/listener hears something different.

The exhibition, “Sound Requires a Medium,” is the first solo show for the artist, Maya Dunietz, an Israel-based composer, musician and sound artist. This audio-visual, random music is inspired by the work of the American composer Pauline Oliveros (born 1932) who in the 1960s coined the term and practice of “deep listening.” Based on principles of improvisation, electronic music, rituals and meditation, deep listening “aims to connect individuals to their environments and open us up to one another,” as the curator, Chen Tamir, notes.

Dunietz ultimately connects back to the tradition of “noise machines” devised by the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) and to wire sculpture. The general view of her sound installation brings to mind Marcel Duchamp’s famous work “His Twine,” from the 1942 show “First Papers of Surrealism” in New York, in which twine was stretched across the length and breadth of the exhibition hall to create a labyrinth, an alternative route and an effect of disorientation. Another work that is evoked is the 1970 “Rope Piece” by the Jewish German-born American sculptor Eva Hesse (1936-1970), in which the notion of the random, arbitrary, formless form, internally entangled, also plays a key role. In particular, the Dunietz work recalls “The Key in the Hand,” an installation by the Berlin-based Japanese-born artist Chiharu Shiota, which was on display in the Japanese pavilion of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Shiota created a vast tangle, using keys and yarn, beneath which the visitor could walk. The installation created the effect of a tempestuous dreamscape that was simultaneously interior and exterior, a tangle that could not be unraveled yet possessed powerful internal logic, order and discipline.

Dunietz is a latecomer to this artistic tradition of mess-making artists who throw, stack and hurl things, seeking a form that is not monolithic but based on cumulativeness and wandering. According to the artist, there are about 20 kilometers of cables in the room; the sound passes through the whole construction all the time, and “weird things happen.”

The rest of the exhibition, four works on the upper floor, also deals with sound and its deconstruction into basic elements, which heighten awareness of it. “Sound Requires a Medium” is a simple device, consisting of straws that can be wrapped around a metal rod. It also includes instructions. To listen to sounds through the teeth, the visitor is instructed to place a new straw on the metal rod, to stick his fingers in his ears, listen, and, while listening, slowly remove his fingers from his ears. The straw should be discarded after use. Here, too, each viewer/listener is alone, and becomes a kind of experimenter who turns his body into an echo chamber, creates a style and rhythm of his own, and, as such, functions as an extra in a performance of visitors to the exhibition.

The notion of making active use of viewers at the exhibition and the possibility of seeing them practicing listening, reaches a peak in a work aptly titled “Hole in the Wall.” To listen to the edited field recordings that are played from inside the wall, the visitor must place his head flush against the wall. What he hears are fragments of conversations interlaced with faint noises of bodies clashing, possibly in violence or perhaps in sex, and the singing of the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum. You can hear a word here, a sound there, indistinct and fractured. Visitors must absolutely embrace the architectural structure, the curator notes. Each person has his own style of communing with the wall; some have to bend over to the small indentation in it, others need to stand on tiptoe.

Sound as a plastic medium

Another work is “Bird Whistle,” a mechanical apparatus consisting of a lever and a weight. Every three minutes, the weight descends on a bellows that is connected to a clay whistle shaped like a bird. When the air fills it, it whistles. “The bird was in my studio while we constructed the work,” Dunietz told Time Out Israel in an interview. “After a few days we said that we felt the birds outside were responding to it. There was a sense of synchronization, of dialogue, it was very clear that they were talking to one another. Let’s say it would be possible to ask the bird outside, ‘Tell me, did you speak with the bird in the studio?’ The bird wouldn’t care, because it communicates with the whole cosmos and also with this bird, the way children speak to dolls.”

Dunietz works with sounds in the same way one would work with plastic mediums, transforming the sound into a material and dramatizing it. Her audio machines and sound apparatuses – some of which are effective in creating deep listening and intensifying perception, while others are the complete opposite – are complicated, exaggerated and wacky machines for conducting a simple operation. It’s preciselybecause of the wackiness, which involves slowing down the manner in which sound is produced (inhaling and exhaling into an instrument), that catches one’s attention. And thus, too, the visual layer for the sense of hearing is also forged: the mirror or the sculpture or the performance of the listening. Dunietz offers samples of background noises, seemingly ordinary, which in everyday life are assimilated and taken as tumult or white noise. If they have a rhythm, it is absorbed into the body and the consciousness without being noticed, unintentionally imparting calm or tension.

The whole material and visual apparatus is subordinated to the production of sounds and their transmission, in the desire to focus attention on the underlying foundation: the manner in which a sound is produced and received. This, though, is also the weak point of the exhibition. Dunietz makes do with quite a basic theme and does not develop it further. The result is that the imparting of a visual element to the sounds remains somewhat game-like, a bit didactic. It’s not charged with sufficient power or particularity.

It appears as though the artist wants us to listen eternally to the gong that has sounded, for us to feel about each sound as though it were the first utterance of an infant, to experience the world as though we are on the 30th floor listening to traffic going by somewhere below. We are meant to be moved, to feel connected, to be children speaking to their dolls.

However, the general view and the type of experience that Dunietz has organized – an impressive gigantic production for minor insights – recalls to some extent family-oriented science museums, which include popular hands-on devices to activate and marvel at, which provide childish fun during their use because they’re like magic, but are forgotten the instant one steps outside.