A quick reflection
Deep in the winter of 2016 here in NYC, the New Museum held an exhibition of the work of Anri Sala, an Albanian contemporary artist who currently lives and works in Berlin. Although I wasn't familiar with his work before visiting, the exhibition caught my eye because I'd read that many of the pieces played with music, sound, and video in interesting ways — all personal interests of mine.
In watching Jordana's lessons, I kept thinking back to visiting this exhibition. Many of Sala's works of art would qualify as "time-based" art since they are distinct videos with start and end times. That said, there is also a significant "experience-based" quality to them, since some are site-specific and installed in a particular way, inviting viewers to experience a sound-and-space experience in and out, at one's own pace. I recall a moment in these Skillshare video lessons where Jordana talks about how these art types can blur, how they're not mutually exclusive. Sala's works are a strong example here.
Considering one piece in the exhibition
Premiering in 2013, Ravel Ravel Unravel is contemporary three-part performance piece showing different ways performers — pianists and DJs alike — have interpreted Ravel's Piano Concerto in D for the Left Hand (a piece famously composed for one-handed, WWI amputee Paul Wittgenstein, the less famous brother of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein). Here's a quick 2-minute video on the work's premiere at the La Biennale di Venezia in 2013.
Knowing the history of the concerto is just the start of asking contextual questions about Sala's work. Ravel infamously was preoccupied with the tempi and speed of his compositions, perhaps suggesting themes around time that also had global historical resonance in the interwar period. Economically, socially, and spiritually, many during that time thought it felt like the end of the world, and they were trying to venture an understanding of humanity that would remain fragmented until our attempts to politically rebuild after WWII. In recalling this era of the 1930s, is Sala offering a re-interpretation of how we think about time, how we think about the passage of experience, its linearity? Perhaps: how we experience time collectively as a society?
In Sala's installation, he has DJs speeding up and slowing down recordings of Ravel's music. He plays two videos simultaneously, with two different pianists performing the piece, their interpretations falling in and out of coordination as they each bring their distinct artistic interpretations to their performances. He projects the videos in a "semi-anechoic chamber," which simply means there's no echo — a space that traps the music, that seems to almost freeze time, a space that loops the videos over and over again to build an illusion of being almost outside time. Yes, our language here becomes place-driven — because, of course, in talking about time, we are also talking about space.
Here we can see how in talking about the work of art, we are asking questions more than answers. We are venturing a discussion where we are stepping beyond mere partiality (do I like this work? do I dislike the work?) and attempting to closely and slowly engage with a work. We are opening, rather than closing, a discussion.
Tying back to class vocabulary
Thinking about these themes and questions like, "what is the artist's intention?" we find ourselves with so many interesting questions. What does the forward motion of the music, and yet its dynamism as it falls in and out of coordination, suggest about other "organized" systems? What can the emotional components of the music — its drama, its intrigue, its melodic and harmonic and dissonant journeys through loud and soft and fast and slow sections — suggest about our own emotional states? How does seeing the work this way, rather than in a traditional concert hall, change our experience? Of course, with this last question, we come back to our own experience of art, reception and what we bring to a piece.
More about the work
It's been such a pleasure revisiting this work through the lens of these Skillshare lessons. I'm so looking forward to seeing what other contemporary art students share here in the class. If you'd like to learn more about Anri Sala and the piece I mention above, here are a few links that may be of interest: