Sound Art has become increasingly popular (thus, the capital S and capital A). The first dedicated gallery in the UK, Soundfjord, opened late last year; Florian Hecker’s installation at the Chisenhale in the spring has been one of this year’s most talked-about pieces. But as the form proliferates, the debate surrounding it intensifies. Can it ever be an autonomous discipline? Just where does music end and sound art begin?
Born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1975, artist Tim Lee is one of several new voices interrogating sound art’s boundaries. His recent exhibition, Solo Quintet (1897-1979) on view at Lisson Gallery from Sept. 8 - Oct. 2, 2010, had at its heart the four-channel video installation String Quartet, Op. 1, Glenn Gould, 1955, a recording of Lee ‘playing’ all the instruments in Gould’s one and only composition (published in the same year as his career-defining recording of the Goldberg Variations). Lee, who is barely competent on violin, viola or cello, recorded his performance note by note, and spliced his footage together into the fluid end result.
When I asked Lee how he came to use sound in art, he explained that he had wanted to be a musician but was unable to play any instruments. Pieces like String Quartet are a way for Lee to exceed the limits of his ability, to realise his aspiration. Lee does not disguise the fact that the audio impression of a respectable performance is entirely artificial – it’s a cheat – the product of a nice idea and some neat editing. There’s an interesting paradox here: the work is both empowering, in that it allows Lee to accomplish something he’s always wanted to do, and demeaning, in that it makes a spectacle of his incompetence.
Lee’s position is an unfashionable one. While so many sound artists seek to liberate their work from the discursive world of music, he attempts a rapprochement. When asked to cite influences he listed, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach, Dan Graham and Public Enemy. Sound art doesn’t have to divorce itself from music, he seems to be saying – it can be a way to wryly comment on it, to draw our attention, in the case of his String Quartet, to the relationship between performance technique and recording technology. In Lee’s world, practice – the way Gould learned to play – can now be outsourced, substituted by another process entirely.
--Charlotte Jansen, a writer living in London
(Images: Tim Lee, String Quartet, Op. 1, Glenn Gould, 1955 (installation shots), 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery, London)