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Sound Noir at the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein (NAK) shows art that sounds black, and does a really good job at it. Ben Kaufmann’s and Stefan Vicedom’s pun on film noir does not lead much further than into a black box and behind the screens of a mid- 20th century cinema, which opens their presentation of Jacob Kirkegaard’s and Konrad Smole?ski’s most recent installations up to many possible connections between contemporary sound practices and our cultural and art historical associations with the color black.

The NAK is located on the border of Aachen’s city park in a former building of the municipal parks department, a small and inconspicuous space with two plain white cubes and exposed concrete ceilings, which is precisely its charm. The logics of the show are just as simple: two rooms, two artists, two works – with the consequence that Smole?ski and Kirkegaard did not even know each other up until the opening.

Downstairs, Smole?ski, known widely for his bell resonance piece at the 55th Venice Biennale, has now set up a labyrinth of the encased loudspeakers that have been pervading his work for years. Drawing from his extensive image database of not just loudspeakers, but also weapons, instruments and power plants, the artist has now worked with inspiration from Altec Lansing’s The Voice of the Theater speaker system. These cabinet speakers became especially popular in mid-20th century movie theaters, but were hardly ever seen by their audiences, as they remained hidden behind the cinema screen. In One Mind in a Million Heads, the large wooden cases have evolved from screen-sized walls – how they were still presented at the Volkspaleis in 2014 – into a scrap heap maze that fills the entire exhibition space. Blinded by the fluorescent tubes, visitors can see nothing but black loudspeakers and cable tangles. They get lost between loud hums and quiet hisses, trying to support themselves on the very speakers that blast at them. The shapes and colors of film soundtracks have come tumbling down.

The downstairs white cube is followed by a black box upstairs, setting a much more intimate stage for Kirkegaard’s quieter and less monumental piece. Untitled (Black Metal Square), lit up auratically by a single spot, sounds a square metal plate that hangs from the ceiling. Kirkegaard is known for his Lucierian circles, such as his re-recordings of the silences of the Chernobyl exclusion area around the nuclear power plant site, eliciting and reinforcing the abandoned buildings’ resonant frequencies.

For this installation, he takes a similar approach, picking up the thin metal plate’s vibrations, amplifying them and circulating them back into the plate until the square starts to resonate. The nothingness of the black square in art history becomes elevated by this generative sonification principle, which ironically relies precisely in the black square’s materiality. Whereas Malevich’s painting had hung up high in a corner of the room as an icon, Kirkegaard hangs his metal plate in the middle of the dark space, where its feedback loop of vibrations and its shadow play of resonances suggest both spiritual immersion and fragile manipulability.

Who’s afraid of black sound? Not the NAK, which has diligently taken the necessary measurements to make this show work. While there have been many discussions in recent years about whether sound-themed exhibitions should avoid the traditional group show set-up altogether or develop new open formats as part of which artists can work collaboratively directly in the exhibition space, this show takes a promising step toward making sound works work in a traditional visual arts setting. Naturally, concessions had to be made by both artists- Smole?ski recomposed the dynamics of his piece and Kirkegaard amplified his installation. After these mutual adjustments, a beautiful show has emerged that convinces with both thematic coherence and lots of silence cloth, and that is something we do not hear often.

Neuer Aachener kunstverein
26.9 t/m 22.11.2015

The weekend of November 7 and 8, Paul Devens will expand the show with Subjected Sounds, a public program showcasing various young artists’ installations, performances and presentations.

All images courtesy NAK

Linnea Semmerling

is a curator, researcher and writer

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