Review of Gallery Sound | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Gallery Sound

Gallery Sound
by Caleb Kelly

Bloomsbury, NY, NY, 2017
176 pp., illus. 11 b/w. Trade, US$27.95
ISBN: 9781501304361

Reviewed by: 
John F. Barber
December 2017

Gallery Sound, a new book by Australian curator Caleb Kelly, hinges on a simple but provocative theme: contemporary art and its public exhibition has changed. Following "ready mades" championed by Marcel DuChamp, anything/everything is art. No longer strictly visual, contemporary art is multimodal.

Contemporary art galleries are no longer hallowed spaces for quiet contemplation of art. Instead, galleries, especially those that seek economic success, increasingly cater to art tourists and families looking for packaged infotainment experiences. As a result, galleries have increasingly become noisy spaces. Normally, one might expect to hear footsteps as gallery visitors move through the exhibition spaces, along with their breathing, coughing, and talking. Sounds of the heating and ventilation systems are also expected. Less so, but still accepted, is the sound of street traffic outside the gallery. Now guided group tours, artist floor talks, exhibition openings, busy cafes and gift shops, even musical performances, add to the noise levels in galleries.

What are artists and curators to do? Gallery Sound takes the stance that sound is a continual undercurrent in contemporary gallery spaces. Artists more frequently employ sound as part of their work(s), and often utilize galleries as productive spaces. Artists and curators and galleries all use exhibition spaces as sites for considering art as a multisensory experience.

Gallery Sound considers sounds and sounding practices found in spaces normally intended for the exhibition of, primarily, visual art.

The book itself is small but rich with details and examples of artists who are using contemporary galleries for sound-based art, even music making/performance. Gallery Sound is composed of three chapters, each divided into several sub-sections. Chapter 1, "The Empty-Sounding Gallery," describes several experiments during or around 1969 where artists working with sound explored galleries, not as white-cube voids, but as sites for sound-based, experiential artworks. Kelly discusses works by John Cage, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Michael Asher, Bruce Nauman, La Monte Young, and Alvin Lucier, all which helped draw attention the ubiquity of sound and its role in our experience of the world.

Chapter 2, "Noises in the Gallery," considers how sounds normally considered noise have been exploited by artists as commentary about sounds in gallery spaces. For example, readers familiar with the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London will know this is not a space for quiet contemplation. What is needed here are large artworks that compete with the gigantic scale of this space, and the massive numbers of people who visit the gallery daily. Kelly discusses several artists and their works that sought to comment on noises in galleries, or bring such an abundance of their own sound(s) that others would be diminished, if not rendered impossible to hear. Kelly provides details about several and how they have helped create a new vision of contemporary art.

Chapter 3, "Musical Galleries," focuses on the relationship between musical performances and gallery spaces. Seeking to attract more and more visitors, many galleries engage musicians to perform during public hours. But, rather than musicians using gallery space as alternative venues, this chapter considers how musical performances in traditional art galleries have transformed music and how the art space has, in turn, been transformed by music.

The result is to reconsider experiences of and with sound inside spaces traditionally devoted to visual arts and the silent contemplation of that art by viewing. As Kelly demonstrates, historic and contemporary galleries have always been noisy places. Gallery Sound provides an engaging account of how contemporary artists have mined the sonic qualities of contemporary galleries for creative output and the production of new forms of contemporary art.

As Kelly argues, rather than being rejected as unwanted noise, gallery sounds can instead be part of a full experiential encounter with artworks on exhibition. With sound now part of the gallery experience, contemporary art requires one to listen, as well as look.