BAM/PFA exhibition explores paradox of silence

Still from Nam June Paik's silent film, 'Zen for Film,' a work featured in the 'Silence' exhibit at the BAM/PFA.
BAM/PFA/Courtesy
Still from Nam June Paik's silent film, 'Zen for Film,' a work featured in the 'Silence' exhibit at the BAM/PFA.

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The first “moment of silence” on the radio was in 1919 for victims of World War I. But even a mere moment of so-called nothingness was so alarming that many people thought they had an apocalyptic takeover on their hands, or at least a malfunctioning radio.

There is a sort of discomfort in silence usually perceived as awkwardness or the feeling that something is missing. But what many point out, including the late composer John Cage, is the paradox of silence. Ambient noise, such as rhythms of breath or the hum of your organs working, is always present. Your thoughts and inner monologue run even more rampant and boisterous.

Cage had exactly this in mind when he sat down at the piano during a concert in 1952 and began his subversive piece, “4’33” ” — four minutes and 33 seconds of “silence.” Though some were outraged at the “lack” of performance, others say it was the most important work of his life. When further explored, the piece seems to assert that there is no such thing as social or political silence or stillness.

Using this as inspiration, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive have employed Cage’s work as the central element for their newest art and film exhibit, “Silence.” The cavernous architecture, absence of docent voices and the group of other contemplative shows currently showing at the museum lend themselves to the “poetry before pedagogy” doctrine that co-curator of “Silence” Toby Kamps describes as unique to BAM.

The group of works spans more than 50 years and includes those of masters such as Magritte and Duchamp as well as experimental contemporary artists such as filmmaker Jacob Kirkegaard, who presents haunting footage of abandoned places like gymnasiums in radioactive Chernobyl.

Though the purpose of the show is to honor Cage’s 100th birthday and “4’33”,” silence is not all; noise is rampant. Literal in its title, Robert Morris’ “Box with the Sound of Its Own Making” plays a loop of the sound of the artist creating a box. One can hear chopping, sanding, pausing and even slamming the door as he leaves in frustration. Placed in the same room are Jennie C. Jones’ compositions — soundproof panels and canvas, stark and abyssal. It can be difficult to get silence, or at least quiet, for the pieces that seem to need it.

But perhaps this conversation and constant conflict between silence and noise is what makes the show effective in how it calls for self-reflection.

Though it could have placed the viewer in a silent gallery with white walls left only to the sounds of their grumbling stomach or heartbeat, “Silence” opens a way of seeing that involves senses other than sight. Looking at Giorgio de Chirico’s “Melancholia,” one can hear the flags fluttering, as well as the potential for loud footsteps through the vast porticos and the quiet that settles in with the sunset.

Though the theme of silence can get repetitive, what breaks the monotony is the variety of media. Around the corner from an assemblage of flashing neon signs, “Violins Violence Silence” by Bruce Nauman hangs a display of Tehching Hsieh’s “One Year Performance,” chronicling a year spent in a cage in New York City without listening to the radio, watching television or reading. Further along, Stephen Vitiello uses photocells in his piece, “Light Readings,” to convert light into sound, forming an interactive piece filled with synaesthesia.

“Silence” is all about the unpredictability of the memories or anxieties that surface in the absence of sound. Not only do personal and existential questions reveal themselves, but aesthetic ones emerge as well. Silence is a medium, experience, fantasy and fear, a nuanced paradoxical concept that can only be captured by variation in sensory experience.

A.J. Kiyoizumi is the lead visual arts critic.

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