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Commentary: Sound makes a fascinating subject in art exhibitions


Lately I've found that the word "sound" appears in the titles of many art exhibitions that I have visited. The Missouri Botanical Garden currently has the exhibition "Botanical Resonance: Plants and Sounds in the Garden" at the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum located within the Garden.

Using collections from the Garden Herbarium, William L. Brown Center and other lenders, the exhibition looks at the different plants used to create musical instruments, as well as how different plants make unique sounds throughout their lifecycles in nature and the Garden. For the species used to make instruments, many often become jeopardized and threatened in their native environments due to the increasing production and demand for the desirable plant material.

Innovative and diverse works by Annika Kappner, Brooke Erin Goldstein and St. Louis artist Kevin Harris are on display.

Accessibility initiatives for deaf and hard of hearing audiences are an integral part of the exhibition, including interactive installations and experiential/virtual programming.

Recently, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University featured an exhibition by Nicole Miller titled, "A Sound, a Signal, the Circus."

Meredith Malone, curator of the exhibition, talked about the exhibition and said, "Miller's twenty four channel soundscape anchors the exhibition, directing the viewer's attention in the gallery. It is composed of recorded and appropriated sounds, texts, and music, along with edited excerpts from interviews that she conducted in St. Louis in the summer and fall of 2021. In these interviews poets, dancers, educators, and teenagers of color share a wide range of perspectives--personal, political, philosophical and creative--often drawing connections to their own bodies. Participants evoke the body variously as a repository of experience, and as a focus of joy and trauma. Miller intentionally omits her own voice from these conversations. The viewer, like the artist herself, is positioned as an active listener, receiving these stories while contemplating their own body in the space of the gallery.

Through continuous transmutations--sound to light, light to text, text to sound, sound to video--Miller troubles an easy faith in the notion of visibility as an antidote to erasure and exclusion, seeking to generate a different register capable of holding a multiplicity of stories and experiences. In this immersive environment visitors are implicated as spectator and subject; we are questioned how we come to know what we know about bodies and the meanings attached to them. The sound of voices speaking and the sight of bodies moving through space set up the potential for a heightened attention to one's own body while provoking fundamental considerations of whose bodies are valued in society, whose voices are amplified, and whose lives are cherished."

"St. Louis Sound," a continuing exhibition at the Missouri History Museum curated by Andrew Wanko, is simply a spectacular look at many genres of music and their roots right here in St. Louis. The exhibition deserves more than a walk through.

Wanko gives lots of credit to Steve Pick and Amanda Doyle for their book, "St. Louis Sound" on which the exhibition is based. The exhibition traces the history of music in our city from Native American works to the music of the early French settlers to today. Included in the exhibition is the history of technology in the music industry, a wonderful collection of meaningful musical instruments, history of well-known music venues, stories and histories of many of our word famous musicians such as Chuck Berry, Nelly, Josephine Baker, Henry Townsend, but best of all, if you put on your earphones, you can hear literally over 100 songs.

Of course, I could go on and on about sound in art. The Pulitzer Museum has recently had several exhibitions featuring world famous sound artists. Susan Philipsz's immersive sound installations were recently featured at the museum and Terry Adkins’ (1955-2014) works of over 3 decades were recently on view at the Pulitzer. Adkins was a pioneer with his body of work which blends sculpture, sound, performance, videos and printmaking.

Commenting on sound artists, designer Colleen Hochberger said, “The American musician and soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause once said, ‘While a picture might be worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.’ The deeply emotional and vastly expressive nature of sound makes it a powerful art form. Like much contemporary art, sound art is interdisciplinary, spanning diverse genres from installation, film and experimental music to interactive technology and spoken word and poetry.”

Just when I think, I've covered all the art genres, I realize there's always more to behold.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.