“A House Full Of Music” Border-crossings between the arts

Bernhard Leitner's “Soundcube”, a combination of sound and space at the exhibition “A House Full Of Music”.
Bernhard Leitner's “Soundcube”, a combination of sound and space at the exhibition “A House Full Of Music”. | Photo (detail): Wolfgang Günzel / Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt

While this year’s International Summer School for Music in Darmstadt was devoted to the impact of John Cage on the German music world, the exhibition “A House Full Of Music” explored the interactions of his work with the universe of art in general. A successful experiment.

‘It is important to make the situation complex’, John Cage once observed apropos his ideal of aesthetic experience. The exhibition A House Full Of Music, whose title alludes to a performance by the American avant-garde artist, quite obviously felt itself bound to this recommendation. Its profusion was a curatorial principle: 350 exhibits of 110 artists awaited the visitor from May 13 to September 9, 2012, at the Darmstadt Mathildenhöhe Museum, the art nouveaux building which Joseph Maria Olbrich designed in early 1906 as a ‘building for independent art’.

The mass of pictures, sculptures, videos, installations, musical scores and music needed ordering, which is why the makers of the exhibitions – museum director Ralf Beil and the curators Stefan Fricke, Peter Kraut and Thomas Schäfer – devised a ‘guide system’ consisting of concepts that combine the various artistic strategies.

A guide system through the world of John Cage

Storing, Collaging, Silencing, Destroying, Calculating, Jumbling, Feeling, Thinking, Believing, Furnishing, Repeating and Playing: these twelve keywords set markings that aired pragmatic analogies between visual art and music instead of slipping into the blur of synaesthesia. That this thematic coordination is sometimes more and sometimes less conclusive proved to be no disadvantage but rather emphasized the fluidity, in the best sense, of advanced contemporary art. In A House Full Of Music the ‘loss of the centre’ became a communicative principle.

The exhibition room “play” The exhibition room “play” | Photo: Wolfgang Günzel / Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt Accordingly, the exhibition treated past and present border-crossings between the arts. It focussed on three key pioneers of a ‘hybrid’ art: Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. Proceeding from these beginnings, the exhibition built up a highly complex panopticon of the multi-disciplinary art movements of the past hundred years. For example, under the rubric ‘Silencing’, Cage’s silent piece 4’33'' was juxtaposed with the ‘empty’ White Paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, shortly thereafter followed by Joseph Beuys’s sculpture Das Schweigen (i.e., The Silence): five zinc-plated film reels of the eponymous film by Ingmar Bergman.

Supplementary contrasts

The strategy of ‘Destroying’ is documented by Georges Maciunas’s photographs of Nam June Paik’s performance of One for Violin Solo, in which a violin is smashed to bits; the cover of The Who album, bearing the evocative title This Guitar Has Seconds to Live, corresponds in turn to the 1983 music video Autobahn by the Einstürzende Neubauten in which the industrial musicians carve up a car using a blowtorch and a chainsaw. The section entitled ‘Storing’ showed Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961), a sculpture that addresses the relation between visual and acoustical perception in a striking manner: from a loudspeaker inside the box emanate sounds that arose in the box’s production.

Musical scores were also on display: ‘classical’ notations – for instance, from the hands of Arnold Schönberg, Iannis Xenakis and Luciano Berio – and graphic forms – for instance, sheet music that the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins peppered with shotgun pellets in 1968. In 1982 Terry Fox in turn re-interpreted a cartographic outline of the course of the Berlin Wall as a musical text: The Berlin Wall Scored for Sound. Next to it the exhibition showed installations and videos by Carsten Nicolai, Yoko Ono, Georg Hildebrandt, Peter Roehraund Ragnar Kjartansson – all works that can only inadequately be explained by assigning them exclusively either to visual art or to music.

Kutiman's video collage “The Mother Of All Funk Chords” was one of the contemporary exhibits of “A House Full Of Music”, source: Youtube/Kutiman

Somewhat underrepresented unfortunately were media of the present day – inclusion of user-generated content from the internet would have been especially instructive. Still, Kutiman’s unusual YouTube collage The Mother Of All Funk Chords did make its way to Darmstadt. So all in all the exhibition was a success. The equal synopsis of works of visual art and music has lastingly sharpened our sense for the interactive influence and parallel developments of both genres. A House Full Of Music made clear once again that the aesthetic dialogue between the visual and the acoustic must form an integral part of a contemporary art discourse. It is indeed important to make the situation complex.

The comprehensive exhibition catalogue A House Full of Music. Strategies in Music and Art, edited by Ralf Beil and Peter Kraut, is published by Hatje Cantz, 416 pages, 468 illustrations, 24.5 x 30.5 cm, hardcover, 49,80 euros. In addition to this catalogue has been published A House Full Of Music as a part of the series Kunst zum Hören (i.e. “Art To hear”), 52 pages, 57 illustrations, 22 x 22 cm, with CD, 16,80 euros.