‘Mistakes I’ve Made’ was the title of Dutch artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s first solo exhibition at Annet Gelink Gallery. Indeed, the four installations in the show were supposed to mimic an ‘accidental creation’ of the universe, a term Van Sonsbeeck borrowed from the travel writer Bill Bryson, setting in motion a train of thought about the origins of creativity.
But ‘Mistakes I’ve Made’ inevitably also suggests a degree irony. Van Sonsbeeck gave the same title to a series of six pitch-black canvases covered in Faraday paint, an expensive material made of graphite particles that block data streams for wifi or mobile phones. Over the surfaces of each of these dense works, Van Sonsbeeck scattered slivers of gold leaf. The effect was one of looking into a galaxy filled with gleaming stars. Each painting was in turn paired with an acoustic object entirely coated in gold leaf: a box of earplugs, an egg carton and several forms of sound shields hung on either the left or right of the canvas, drawing parallels between space and silence. Though the Faraday paint didn’t appear to have any effect in the gallery (my mobile was still working), it functioned conceptually: together with the sound-absorbing objects it was possible to imagine the silence of space itself.
Van Sonsbeeck started out as an architect. Her interest in sound and its absence began with noises coming from her neighbours. Unable to sleep at night because of their lovers’ quarrels, make-up sex and loud music, she decided to calculate the space that the noise ‘occupied’ in her house. Using a decibel meter and a drawing to visualize sound entering the architecture, she calculated the result as 80 percent of her living space. She decided to write a letter asking her neighbours to pay ‘their share’ of her monthly rent; unsurprisingly, they never responded. Since then, Van Sonsbeeck has used her work to question the popular equation of silence with calmness and privacy.
Silence, clearly, is a relative concept. It might be political: in Turkey, for instance, it could evoke the silencing of journalists. This reference to politics was most tangible in the installation Kamyon Gelecek (all works 2013), Turkish for ‘Truck Will Come’. Placed in the middle of the gallery, the sculpture consists of a black ladder with a beam angling outward from its lower rungs. It replicates a situation Van Sonsbeeck came across during a residency in Istanbul, where a carpenter had placed a ladder in front of his workshop in a busy street to keep cars from parking there. Van Sonsbeeck later leant two wooden boards against the side of the ladder, with words painted in bold white lettering: Tren Gelecek (Train Will Come) and Ucak Gelecek (Plane Will Come). Van Sonsbeeck’s work represents a futile, almost satirical, attempt to create silence and private space in a city, with just a minimal configuration of objects, signs and words.
The artist also explored ideas of privacy in Private Space, consisting of seven gold-plated convex condenser lenses in different sizes hung on the wall. These objects – which are usually used as parts of microscopes – functioned less as magnifying glasses than as mirrors, in which the curved glass reflected the viewer and the gallery’s interior. ‘Mistakes I’ve Made’ transcended the possible ironic or self-deprecating connotations of its title with Gold Dust. Installed close to the gallery’s ceiling, a silent machine released a few tiny slivers of gold leaf every ten minutes. As some of the specks whirled down toward the floor, a few ended up on my sleeves and hair. And when I was outside unlocking my bike, I realized I was taking tiny pieces of precious golden silence from Van Sonsbeeck’s ‘mistakes’.