Between Sound and Vision (hear installation sound)
at the Universty of Illinois at Chicago, Gallery 400
February 18 through March 10, 2001

by Fred Camper, Chicago Reader - March 2, 2001


Avant Garde artists are often misrepresented in the popular press as nutcases or charlatans. John Cage and his chance music have been derogated in "my kid could do that" terms. Alan Kaprow's happenings were written up as sensational, unstructured novelties meant to shock. The Fluxus artists' attempts to blend art and life--Alison Knowles ate an identical lunch for months, declaring the act of doing so art@ould easily be presented as merely silly.

But as the 53 works by 45 artists (another 10 contribute live or recorded performances) in "Between Sound and Vision" at Gallery 400 reveal, such artists were making work as thoughtfully considered as any old master, though their ethos and approach couldn't be more different. While this magnificent, enlightening, and just plain joyous exhibition concentrates on artists who came of age in the 50s and 60s, pieces by some younger and lesser known artists show that childlike utopianism has at least a few heirs today.

The theme of the exhibit is work that integrates sound and images, and most of the artists chosen by the curators-University of Illinois art, history professor Hannah Higgins and a group of her graduate students, who spent two years putting together the show, partake of a similar aesthetic. Key is the surrender of ordered perfection, and some degree of artistic control, to chance operations, the decisions of the performers, or both. Incorporating chance was not part of an attempt to épater le bourgeois but resulted from what Cage called an intent "to affirm this life ... not to bring order out of chaos or suggest improvemcm so creation. but simply to wake up to the very life we're living." These artists create real or metaphorical frames that allow the viewer to focus, not so much obliterating the distinction between art and life as encouraging the viewer to have a deeper experience of life.

Yet it seems the routes mapped out by Cage and the Fluxus artists in the 50s and 60s have largely become roads not taken, as the art world has increasingly returned to the manufacture and sale of objects. Two wonderful sound installations seem to acknowledge this fact: lacking the physical and philosophical scope of works by Kaprow and Cage, these pieces carve out a small part of the gallery in which to make their music.

Dan Senn ... is represented by Vertical 'lyre I (1997). Horizontal strands of fishing line and piano wire are strung across a black frame, looking like musical staffs. The tension in the fishing lines is changed by inaudible low-frequency sounds, causing several thin rods attached to them to rotate and hit the piano wires, whose sound is then amplified. The result is a gentle percussive composition, accompanied by recorded music from a CD that also produces the low-frequency sounds. The frame provides a visual focus, and one quickly notices that the rods twist out of sync. Senn pointed out to me that he's placed tiny weights on them in different positions, resulting in a different center of gravity for each.

The resulting quiet mix of order and randomness makes one feel that this tiny machine isn't working quite right and that's part of the point. It's hard not to see Vertical 'lyre I in the context of larger more sychronized sound-and-image projects, such as Nam June Paik's giants banks of video monitors, which create a single image. Senn's piece is far less dictratorial. He makes no pretense of reordering the world; instead he directs the viewer toward the "lesser" goal of aprreciating tiny sounds and small movementsthat don't quite come together, because daily life is quite unlike a classical symphony of military march.

Trimpin, a German native who now lives in Seattle, offers ...