Issue 34 May 1997 RSS

M. W. Burns

Tough, Chicago, USA

The pairing of music with film was a practical invention. Music could drown out the noise of the projector and street traffic while helping to sustain or alter the film’s mood which was often disrupted by the choppy splicing common to early cinema. This marriage of sound and moving image quickly led to greater possibilities for film. Ironically by contemporary standards, it is the absence of sound that exposes a film’s ‘artfulness’. The same ‘absence’ can be observed in the gallery or museum context. Outside of Duchamp’s Readymade With Hidden Noise (1916), full audio wonderment has never surfaced as a challenge to the hierarchy of objects or static images.

However, this is not to say that they stand in silence. Sound has always been an important accompaniment to performance, installation and video. M.W. Burns’ new sound work disorients the familiar multi-media category of art-making with a bias toward understanding spatial arrangements and minimal form. His large black loudspeaker systems convey the authority of objectness and technology, phallus and elocution without becoming techie-toys. The sound of jerky mechanical voices, splashing water and seductive storytelling pouring from the faces of these public address units bespeak Wagner’s position that music could ‘amplify what can’t be shown’. But perhaps more appropriately, Burns’ sound sculptures amplify what we choose not to see.

Qualifier (1996) and Sinker (1997) combine in the main gallery to form a triad of commercially produced speakers powered by black electrical cables encircling the perimeter of the gallery floor. The centre piece, Sinker, projects the incidental sounds of water from an elevated mount above the viewer’s head. Flanking each side of Sinker are the two floor monitors comprising Qualifier. Physically and audibly overshadowed by Sinker, the fast-paced, artificial cadence of a pontificating male voice becomes a pure noise occasionally broken with a gurgle or splash from the aquatic sounds overhead. While the viewer (or listener) strains to hear Qualifier’s low-volume diatribe, they become self-consciously aware of the ambient sounds in the gallery; the chit-chat of other visitors or the gallery dealer’s phone conversations. Unlike the old boisterous piano scores that hid the distracting noises of early cinema, Burns’ din focuses attention on the layering of subtle yet potentially disastrous sounds, like that of an unfamiliar rattle coming from your car engine.

Untitled (1997) is a Machiavellian adjustment of the gallery’s architecture and the only piece in the exhibition without a sound component. Reconstructing the entrance wall by shifting the door jamb only inches to the left, Burns remodels and adjusts what was a reasonably plumb gallery wall. He articulates the outline of the original door with tasteful moulding but leaves the new entrance raw. This state of ‘improved means’ at the expense of ‘unimproved ends’ has always permeated Burns’ sculpture. Untitled just happens to be a bit more slippery, revelling in substanceless craftsmanship and hubris of design.

In a small vaulted room adjacent to the main gallery Burns employs audio as an autonomous medium capable of representation. Lifted high on tripods, two large speakers face each other from opposite corners. The pair transmits the story of a reclusive man who invents several characters in order to achieve personal objectivity. The story unravels into a self-absorbed rumination when the narrator says, ‘Okay, forget the script’. Then a volley of self-conscious observations like, ‘I don’t sound like that’ and ‘Is that my voice?’ bring the brief testimony to an end. In this pivotal piece Burns reveals his own vulnerability and succumbs to the doubt and uncertainty he has strategically inflicted in previous projects.

This work seeks an authoritative position by making visible the imperfect structures that we have come to accept in daily life. John Cage said, ‘Music never stops, only listening’. Ironically, Burns beckons us to listen and see in order to expose our own inability to achieve perfection. Nevertheless, his acute facility to integrate sound with sculptural form serves as a poignant reminder of the unnatural neglect suffered by sound in contemporary art production. I suddenly long to hear the potentially excruciating decibels of Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners or Jason Rhoades’ 350 h.p. drill.

Michelle Grabner

About this article

Issue 34 cover

First published in
Issue 34, May 1997

by Michelle Grabner

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