"Silence,” a new show at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) challenges the visitor to find silence among the clamor of today’s world.
For composer John Cage, the absence of sound was not merely elusive, it was impossible. His groundbreaking composition 4’33” contained no actual music, but instead called attention to the ambient sounds surrounding the performance and its audience.
He asserted “there is always something to see, something to hear.” On the occasion of Cage’s hundredth birthday, "Silence" presents nearly a century of modern and contemporary art and film to examine the spiritual, existential, and political aspects of silence.
First mounted by Houston's Menil Collection and supplemented by new works here, the show will be up through April 2013. Occupying three of the museum’s floors, the list of artists is a who's-who of art: René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Christian Marclay, and Tino Sehgal, among others.
Andy Warhol's ghostly red images of electric chairs speak to the ultimate silence of death. His large screen print is juxtaposed next to a series of screen prints by Christian Marclay. A block of wall text here hopefully illuminates Marclay's dialogue with Warhol.
Sehgal's silent dance performance, consisting of a dancer writhing noiselessly on the museum floor was ongoing even on a quiet Friday afternoon. The performance is so silent that the inattentive visitor may miss it or wonder if it is part of the show or some student having a fit over a poor test grade.
Magritte’s huge green apple looks to engulf the viewer, hovering on the edge between narrative and fantasy and fear.
Others, like Nauman's neon sculpture metronomically illuminating the words "Violence, Violins, Silence" and Doris Salcedo's concrete- and lace-filled armoires, reference the cultural and political consequences of keeping (or being kept) quiet.
Robert Rauschenberg's austere "White Painting" raises what the artist called "the suspense, excitement, and body of an organic silence, the restriction and freedom of absence, the plastic fullness of nothing."
While making the viewer think about the idea of silence, the show contains installation pieces that break the silence with bursts of meaningless nose - surely a reminder, if one were needed, of the absence of silence in our urban surroundings.
Silence is golden or so we have been taught. But it’s impossible to find outside a contemplative monastic order. Surreal, sonic or symbolic, "Silence" should make us question the cacophony of our world and how it numbs us to all the varieties of noise.
BAM/PFA’s presentation of "Silence" features a host of public programs, including an opening conversation between Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection, and UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner; a three-part series of Sunday morning meditations in the galleries; performances by sound artists Jacob Kirkegaard and Loren Chasse; and a series of L@TE: Friday Nights @ BAM/PFAevents inspired by the theme of silence.
"Silence." Through April 28. www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.