Soundtrack to an Exhibition: Part 1

By Harry Ewbank

You rock up to the grand turbine hall of the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London. You ascend the stairs and arrive at the entrance of an exhibit where a smartly dressed employee stands. Perhaps you invest in an audio guide before sauntering into the first room. You approach the first piece – a large abstract painting. You gaze at its features for 30 seconds before you begin to notice the ache in your feet and so shift your weight onto the other leg. “What am I supposed to be thinking?” you say to yourself.

You fumble around with the audio guide until you finally get it going. A patronising voice dishes out details about the subtlety with which the paint has been applied and mentions influences from artists you’ve heard of but don’t really know. You look around at all the people who seem deeply engaged by the works. An hour or so later, you leave the exhibition slightly confused. “At least I did something cultured” you think yet you haven’t been inspired to return any time soon and you’re not really sure how you’ve benefited from the gallery visit.

It’s clear something has gone wrong in this experience of a trip to an art gallery

It’s clear something has gone wrong in this experience of a trip to an art gallery. It’s easy to blame yourself and feel like it’s simply your own lack of understanding that is hindering the experience. It’s even easier to say, “Well it’s clearly just pretentious nonsense”. However, it is the responsibility of the exhibitors and curators to make the art accessible and rarely the viewer’s fault if they don’t ‘get it’. So how could a curator improve the experience for the viewer? (Says an arrogant uni student with no experience of curating an art exhibition.)

Reading Alain de Botton’s book Art as Therapy got me thinking. He argues that art should be held accountable for its purpose and that it has rich therapeutic value. By this he means that art is useful in the way it can enhance life (i.e. help us deal with melancholy or heighten moments of happiness). Looking at the way that art is presented in galleries, on sterile white walls next to captions giving the title, date and materials it’s made of, there is very little aiding the viewer’s quest to decipher why it might be worth their time staring at the work. Consequently, people aren’t nearly as comfortable around art as they are around music, films and other forms of culture.

I believe we can revitalize the experience of going to an art gallery by utilizing other mediums.  By doing this, the ideas behind the works and understanding how we should expect to feel around art could be easier. Instead of taking an audio guide into a gallery, why not listen to some music? Music has often been used to enhance other forms of culture. For instance, soundtracks can enhance a scene within a film and guide us to feeling the right emotions.

Instead of taking an audio guide into a gallery, why not listen to some music?

The idea of combining music with art is far from a new idea. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on a composer to soundtrack every exhibition we go to. It would be far easier to create a playlist that features songs that share the intentions of the artworks we are looking at.

Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘It’ll have to take some seriously keen guy with no life to go around a gallery and construct a playlist that is suitable’. Well you’re in luck because that’s exactly what I’ve done for one of the Tate Modern’s permanent (and free!) exhibits called “In The Studio”. I’ve selected a song for one of the pieces in each of the 13 rooms. I believe each song shares the values that could be interpreted from the artwork. One of my particular favourite’s is the music I selected for Anish Kapoor’s Ishi’s Light which hopefully shows what I’m talking about…

…In the final room of the exhibition stands a large sculpture by Kapoor that looks a bit like a large eggshell. The inside surface is a deep red colour that has been polished so that it’s extremely reflective. The artist intended for the viewer to walk into the eggshell so they could experience the surface surrounding them.

Alas, Tate doesn’t want the viewer getting too intimate and so prohibits anyone from getting too close. The reflective inside material is meant to obscure physical location so the viewer must look beyond the surface and into the space where the reflections sit. Kapoor wants the viewer to feel like they are staring into an infinite void. The sculpture facilitates your fall into the reflective vacancy that completely envelops you. The intention is to make you feel small and insignificant beside the immersive sculpture Kapoor presents before you.

The reaction you feel upon viewing the work might be the same as when you take the trek up to the top of observatory hill and turn to see the whole of Durham. The philosopher Edmund Burke would have considered both Kapoor’s sculpture and the view of Durham from observatory hill as incredibly important. This is because both can be considered as sublime.

This song could not more perfectly address the ideas that Kapoor’s art evokes

The experience of the sublime is powerful because it provides us with perspective. The small irritations of our day to day lives seem far less significant in comparison to the vast Durham countryside or the infinite void of Kapoor’s artwork. Where previously we might have been caught up in the details of an immediate situation, Kapoor encourages us to handle daily problems more maturely. In viewing this work we can become less wrapped up in our own concerns and consequently more open and kind to others.

The title of the Bon Iver song Holocene refers to a geological era that has lasted for 11,700 years and encompasses all of human history. It is also the name of a bar in Portland, Oregon where Justin Vernon, the writer, had a pretty loose night on Halloween one year. In both its use of instrumentation and lyrics, the song plays with the idea of the sublime. The song itself strives to immerse the listener within the sound. All the instruments, including the vocals, are layered so that they contribute to an atmosphere, which surrounds you like Kapoor’s void. Lyrically, Vernon plays with the idea of insignificance and the beauty of finding perspective. This song could not more perfectly address the ideas that Kapoor’s art evokes and I think the two pieces go together incredibly well. Of this song, Vernon says:

“Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance that I was trying to look at in that song.”


If you want to check out Harry’s Spotify playlist then click on the link here.


Featured photograph: Konrad Lembcke via Flickr

Photograph of Anish Kapoor’s Ishi’s Light: Frank Romero via Flickr

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