Amsterdam, Nov. 2010 - If silence is golden, Dutch artist Sarah van Sonsbeeck is a bank. Her work, ranging across all sorts of media, is always infused with an attention for space, an heritage of her years as an architecture student. It deals with the immaterial, but also with chance. If silence is a place of intimacy, free from the incursions of the outside environment, the accidents that break it are meaningful, enigmatic, chaotic events storming their way into our world. Sound – or lack thereof – is then only one of the dimensions of her installations, consisting primarily in a fragile and intimate experience to cherish and keep to ourselves. In the shape of minimal container cubes, silk-screened vinyl discs, wooden structures or documentary photography, her works almost always imply an interaction with the viewers. They are no toys, though, as experiencing them is more of a curious and low-pressure commitment. We are mostly listeners.
I first came across Sarah van Sonsbeeck's work at the Sonic Resistance exhibition last October in Utrecht, in the context of the Impakt festival. There I saw her neighbors pieces (this will make sense later on), and when I found out she was presenting her artist book at the Annet Gelink Gallery, where she's currently having a show, I decided to interview her.
Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Letter to my Neighbours , A4 print on phone bill, part of artist book ‘Mental Space – How my neighbours became buildings,2006-2010; Courtesy of the artist
Nicola Bozzi: You studied architecture in Delft, but after attending the Rietveld Academy and spending a residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam you probably have a strong relationship with this city. As an architect and an artist, how do you feel Amsterdam's space is like? Is there anything that makes it particular, if not unique?
Sarah van Sonsbeeck: When graduating at the Rietveld Academy, I was already annoyed with my teachers insisting that I used my architecture background in my artwork. And the noise of my upstairs neighbors frustrated me even more. I decided to write them a letter asking to pay a part of my rent, corresponding to the percentage of space they were taking up in my house with their sound. I didn't realize that was exactly what my teachers had meant. The project opened my eyes to art, but also to architecture: the ideal house - like we were asked to design it in Delft - had no neighbors. In Amsterdam, which is filled with nineteenth century houses with poor insulation, you do!
NB: You seem to be obsessed with silence. To achieve it, you even experimented with anti-sound. Where does this interest come from? Is it deriving from the research of a pure experience or also a longing for privacy?
SvS: After the project on my neighbors I wanted to find out what this ’silence’ I was apparently longing for was. But the more I researched ‘silence’, the more evasive its definition became. For some, true silence can only be found in nature, for some true silence is sleep (or death), and others experience it only in the extreme (and very loud) music they prefer. Yet, when we use it in everyday language, we assume it's something everybody knows. I have investigated it ever since, and still have not found a definite meaning.
NB: In your text, "Mental Space - How my neighbors became buildings" (whose book presentation I attended), you manifest your core interest for immaterial architecture and sound. But you also mention the gaze as a space-maker. What role does visuality play in your work?
Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Mental Space – How My Neighbours Became Buildings, Artist book, 2010, english ed.| 500 numbered and signed copies; Courtesy of the artist
SvS: In some ways, seeing is owning: if a downstairs neighbor wants to cut down the tree that someone living above him considers as part of their view, he will surely get complaints. Your view can make your house feel so much larger. Imagine either looking at a brick wall from your window or at an endless ocean. In the project ‘Mental Space’, I tried to colonize my neighbors across the street – if they were spying on me, I could at least spy back and regain that ‘space’. The gaze is very much linked to ownership and privacy in this respect.
NB: You had a solo show at SMART Project Space, exhibiting a lot of photographic work. Given that you work so much with either immaterial or very physical objects, what use do you make of photography? Is it mostly a documentary tool?
SvS: Photography for me is purely a documentary tool, definitely. At SMART Project Space I used it to capture an attempt at repeating something that had happened to me before, to see if repetition was possible. Someone had thrown a plastic bottle from a car as I was biking past, the bottle hit my forehead exactly. It took near to 55 attempts to succeed. I fully agree with the photographer Hans Aarsman that there is a beauty in photography that is not painterly, but deductive, the beauty of ‘finding things out’.
Sarah van Sonsbeeck, The Pauli Effect – Attempt 51, reconstructional photographs, part of solo show ‘Getting closer to Pauli’, SMART Project Space, 2008; Courtesy of the artist
NB: In many ways, you make silence palpable. An example is your piece "My Real House", shown in Almere in 2009. You also referenced Rachel Whiteread's negative spaces in your solo show at SMART Project Space, using a day-glo pigment to characterize those spaces with positivity. How important is sculpture to you - the presence of a physical object - and how do you integrate it in your work?
SvS: I don’t usually work in a given medium (like paint or film), but each project will find its own best way to be made. Still, I love making objects. Perhaps this is some remnant from my architecture studies?
I am very much inspired by the book The quick and the dead, describing the poetic aspect of objects in early conceptual art. Sometimes an object can be conceptual, and yet have a physical beauty of its own. But it’s hard to achieve. Sometimes it happens by the influence of others, as with One Cubic Meter of Broken Silence, which got destroyed by young vandals that were unknowingly perfecting the work. It was never my intention for it to be broken, but it gave the work its quality in a way I never had or could have anticipated.
Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Machine for my Neighbours, microphone, amplifier, speaker, 2010; Courtesy of the artist
NB: Two of your influences are John Cage and Gordon Matta-Clark. The former famously highlighted the effortless incursion of full sounds into an empty silence, while the latter artificially created empty voids in very heavy architectural volumes. In this sense, these two artists are like each other's negative. Between these two poles, where do you place your work?
SvS: Well, they are enormous inspirations indeed! My work is perhaps not so much between them as inspired by both. My notion of buildings and ownership has changed forever with Matta-Clark's Fake Estates and, since having a public speaker perform John Cage's 4’33’’ at my book launch last week, I feel even more in debt to his way of thinking. As he said: ‘If you listen to Beethoven, it's always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it's always different’. I can’t say it any better.
NB: Do you think architecture is being sufficiently aware of its sonic implications? And are musicians particularly aware of their architectural ones? Do you have any favorite architects or artists that best conjugate these two practices?
SvS: Immaterial architecture seems to be an entirely new field with very little practitioners at present. I hope in the future people will be able to adjust the acoustics of their homes as simply as turning the lights on and off. Until a ‘sound switch’ is a standard in every home, I hope my ‘Machine for the Neighbors’ will at least help a bit. This device made from everyday equipment records the sound of the neighbors and sends it back to them amplified. You can go out and have a coffee, while the neighbors have to deal with their own noise. When you return home: silence.
Artslant would like to thank Sarah van Sonsbeeck for her assistance in making this interview possible.