The Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington has a particularly ambitious exhibition schedule this summer. The new project called "Short Stories" gives individual curators the run of the smaller rooms in the older part of the museum, and the resulting exhibits run the gamut from sculptures you can walk through to sound and video installations. In the larger galleries in the Henry’s new wing, the show, Volume: Bed of Sound, gives center stage to the work of dozens of cutting edge composers, including several from this area. The centerpiece of the sound show, a 60-foot bed with headphones, has been attracting particular attention. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
First the good news. Upstairs at the Henry, Short Stories, a smorgasbord of mini-shows, serves as a very promising kickoff to this new exhibition format. The two clear winners on the current menu (and the mix is supposed to constantly change) are the rooms devoted to abstract prints and funky found-art sculptures. Perhaps partly in contrast to the sheer conceptual aridity of works displayed elsewhere in the museum, the lush, charged pieces by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaller never looked better. Likewise the modest-sized sculptures in a nearby room either imitating, or made of, functional objects, are funny, dense, and beautifully crafted. Toilet paper rolls made from solid wood covered with hand-lettered silk are a hoot, and the blue and white Delftware nipple rings hung from pegs on the wall are as mixed as metaphors get.
Downstairs the much-heralded Bed of Sound installation is another story. The exhibit consists of a series of mostly bare rooms with either headphones or speakers where one is encouraged to listen to recordings of cutting edge modern music. That the music is often interesting and unique is somewhat besides the point; more to the point is the question, why here?
Highly controlled environments, museums are a less than ideal place to experience recorded sound. In one room, for example, where a series of interesting CDs are ready to play the likes of Harry Partch and John Cage over wall-mounted speakers, ever-attentive guards step in to turn down the volume whenever it is set above a dull roar. Come on now Henry — where’s the fun in listening to this work if it is barely audible?
For more private listening, 58 pairs of headphones are arranged along the perimeter of a giant futon, the famed Bed of Sound. And truth to tell, it is sort of a kick watching people spread out on a joint, shared mattress, headphones in place, eyes glazed over. But beyond the voyeuristic novelty, is anything really gained by this arrangement? Since each headphone plays only one selection, there is a maddening randomness to the listening, leaving the listener to try headphone after headphone, searching for the good stuff.
This Bed of Sound seems to be less of a coherent statement about the place of new music in society or the shape of the museum of the future than an attempt to get 20-somethings into the museum of today. And even though there is a large contingent of this target audience among the throngs sprawled on the bed, this is an arrangement that seems unlikely to serve as a model for future installations. Sound art, so difficult to pin to the walls of a gallery, will again be banished to the world of alternative spaces, college radio, the internet, and self-published CDs, which is perhaps not an altogether bad thing.
A final room in the exhibit is a textbook example of curatorial overkill. Here an amusing, but quite unexceptional, CD by Vancouver artist Rodney Graham has been literally enshrined in a vast sky-lit listening gallery all its own. The wall placard informs us that this CD is the result of Mr. Graham’s earnest, year-long search for the formula behind a hit single, recording tracks in the style of various pop stars.
This is all well and good, but how is his enterprise different from the efforts of nearly every other garage band in America, who are also earnestly aping popular styles in search of a hit song? The fact that these unknowns are not art world insiders, like the well-exhibited Mr. Graham, should not warrant a pretentious shrine for this artist and nary a headphone for those countless other pop music wannabees.