by Rosalyn D`MelloSep 16, 2022
What do fire and music have in common? To the discerning minds, the intangible sources of energy share many grounds of similarity, yet the most profound one remains – their potential to play with the flow of time. In the traditional knowledge systems produced across the zones of spatiality, the illuminating flames of fire are symbolic of the circle of life – the burning indicates the inevitability of death, and it also hints at the creation of something anew. On the other hand, the charts of a musical score blend into resonant harmonies it carves a dent into the cycle of time. When the sound waves break or plunge in a cascade, the finitude progression of time cracks into the tide of permeability: leaving the fragments of remembrance against the discrete categories of time. Even if the circles of fire are ethereal and strings of music are ephemeral, they rightly tap onto the experiential and sensorial attentiveness of the human body.
Developing through a labyrinth of non-linear time and piquant experience, as resonated through fire and music, the Morocco-born French artist, currently living and working in Switzerland Latifa Echakhch conceives the installation The Concert at the Pavilion of Switzerland of the 59th Venice Biennale. The large-scale immersive installation is produced in collaboration with percussionist and composer Alexandre Babel and curator Francesco Stocchi. The former is a drummer, composer and curator, known to be an authority in the experimental music scene and the interpretation of the 20th and 21st-century repertoire. Currently, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Stocchi is also responsible for the artistic program of Fondazione Memmo, Rome, and was also a DJ of dub music.
The immediacy of the response while listening to music was crucial to the making of The Concert. Taking a step back as the artist-thinker of visual arts, Echakhch undertook singing and piano lesson to approach the installation as a musician. The two disciplines – art and music – have successfully intertwined and overlapped to inspire and influence the longest journey(s) led by the visual artists, if one were to leaf through the pages of art history surveys. In one of the letters, penned by Vincent van Gogh when he was staying at Provence, the artist notes, “…painting is to us what the music of Berlioz and Wagner was before us – a consolatory art for sore hearts!” Since his formative years, the Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky had proficiently played the violin. The title of his paintings such as Improvisations, Compositions and Fugue suggests the same. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian once a ballroom dancer in Paris was blown away by the jazz music and boogie-woogie when he landed in the city of New York to escape the severity of the Second World War. Besides being synonymous with conceptual and minimalistic art, French-American Marcel Duchamp is known for his musical creation Erratum Musical. The title Music, Pink and Blue, and Blue and Green Music offered by the American modernist Georgia O’Keeffe to her abstract paintings tells about her love for music. The monochromatic blue of the French artist Yves Klein’s paintings saw a musical translation with his Monotone Silence Symphony. The Japanese multimedia artist Yoko Ono, who was friends with O’Keeffe, also created the musical score Voice Piece for Soprano. With The Concert, Echakhch is keen to let the audience imbibe an aftereffect of attending the musical concert.
To visually articulate the spell of the “counter-clockwise journey”, the viewers find the first art space strewn with the residues of burns. Next, harking on the popularity of rituals around the fire, Echakhch makes her audience encounter the larger-than-life folk sculptures installed in the form of straw dolls, which are burnt on St. John's Eve. The enactment is a symbolic representation of the protection against the rising demons and soaring diseases during the period of the solstice at the end of June. Closer home, for Echakhch, the tradition of burning the Böögg on Zurich's Sechseläutenplatz highlights the transition of seasons: withdrawal of winters and onset of summers. The layers marking the woven dolls and remnants of scorched ashes activate the circuit of motion: in discriminatory in nature. Playing with the non-linear notion of time, in each of the rooms, the temporal axis turns topsy-turvy and floods of orange light give way to the abyss of darkness. In the current time punctuated with the unprecedented toll of mortality, straining cultural ecosystems, political intolerance and upheaval of the climates, the installation gestures towards the cyclic passages of detachment and regeneration.
The artist’s pursuit to represent the cyclic nature of things is not bound to the visual representation of the burnt giants’ heads and hands. But the materials - walls, acoustic panels and wood - giving shape to the installation are collected from the previous biennales and repurposed for this exhibition. Once the exhibition ends, the material would be recycled again, only to keep churning the wheel of creation and dismantling and reusing. A record and a book, published in conjunction with the exhibition, further dwell on the making of the project. As the repository of the archival material, interviews and critical texts, and theoretical inquiries into the sound, and rhythm, the documents offer an all-encompassing view of the voyage undertaken to realise the installation.
In an interview with STIR, Babel talks about the unique elements used by Echakhch to mark a departure from her previous artistic pursuits, “In the exhibition The Concert, there are a series of elements already present in many of Echakhch's works. Such as the idea of destruction, the question of absence, and the artist’s relationship to sculptural material, to name only a few.” With the large body of work – paintings, sculptures and installations - produced by Echakhch she interrogates the world of presumptions and prejudices. With the orchestrated setting of the materials and objects, she evokes the poetics of personal memory only to relocate our position in the field of everydayness. For the co-curator of the exhibition, Babel the breakthrough initiated by this pavilion in Echakhch's work lies rather in two main points, “On one hand, the global dimension of the pavilion, a sort of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk; that gathers several elements in one work (the exhibition is moreover accompanied by an important publication featuring critical texts by nine guest authors). And on the other hand, the importance given by Echakhch to the musical dimension, which we find materialized in the composition of lights featured in the building’s main room, and through the Vinyl release that accompanies the exhibition.”
Given the tactile experience the installation offers - as if rising from the brink of cataclysmic eruption - it was imperative to take the geometrical patterns of the built environment into consideration. The interplay of light and shadow and rhythms of floating sounds could not be achieved without the mapping of the venue. Babel offers an elaborate account of a responsive approach to the architecture of the pavilion built-in 1952 by the Swiss architect Bruno Giacometti, “In his work, he already induces a dimension of wandering. The Concert underlines this dimension by bringing the public to follow a very precise route, while the architecture is used in its entirety by the artworks. Thus, the public is invited inside a temporality determined by the order in which it will discover the elements. This temporality has been ‘composed’ in a way similar to the composition of a piece of music. While wandering through the exterior, semi-exterior and interior spaces, the visitor is immersed in universes that evolve. First, in terms of light, the progressive filtering of daylight leads to a dark room partially illuminated by a composition of lamps. And also thanks to the acoustic dimension. Even if no sound is produced in the exhibition, the noise of the steps on the ground covered with gravel and the progressive dampening of the environmental sounds by the closed spaces underline an acoustic progression. At this stage, the intimate relationship between sound, space and time takes on its full meaning.”
Echakhch's premise at the beginning of the project was to ask herself: Is it possible to come out of an exhibition with the same sensations as when coming out of a concert? “The Concert attempts to answer this question, in particular through its ambulatory quality. The visit begins with the end: we first discover the calcinated rests of sculptures, the testimony of a past event. In the course of the visit, we go back in time and discover the intact sculptures in the heart of the exhibition, animated by the rhythm of the light,” elucidates Babel.
The echo, pause, rest and silence serve not just another aesthetic purpose of the musical concert but rather function to expand the spectrum of proposition illustrated by the audience. In a similar vein, the installation The Concert is a manifestation of such distinct responses at once: desire, disbelief and disclosure. The possibility to achieve a moment of epiphany is few and far between: it defies to function as a common occurrence. Yet, Echakhch with The Concert has created an opportunity to accomplish it.
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.
Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.