Weekly Update – ICA’s shows, noisy and still

This week’s Weekly has my review of the ICA shows Ensemble and Between Us. Below is the copy with some pictures. More photos at flickr.

Bring the Noise
“Ensemble” rattles and hums while Eileen Neff’s photos are still as death.

Enter Ensemble at ICA through Mineko Grimmer's Bamboo Forest 1995/2007, a sonic curtain.
Enter Ensemble at ICA through Mineko Grimmer’s Bamboo Forest 1995/2007, a sonic curtain.

“Ensemble” at the Institute of Contemporary Art is louder than a roomful of noisy 2-year-olds unwrapping drums and rattles at Christmas. The group show of 32 clacking, clicking and thumping audio art pieces was organized by guest curator Christian Marclay, an artist whose own work involves complex sonic and visual mixes made from found source material (usually movies). The show aspires to music, but it’s random and not orchestral. Mostly the sounds are like throat-clearings—short, brutal and meaningless.


Tim Hawkinson
Tim Hawkinson’s Coleman thermos makes a noise–assisted by some steak knives.

At the opening Marclay described the show as a sound-art empowerment exhibit that brings audio art out of the gulag of elevators, hallways and closets where it’s usually installed (so as not to disturb the silence of the gallery). That’s a noble goal, but unfortunately, while “Ensemble” demonstrates the ingenuity of the international A-list artists who make audible art, it’s not a great show.

David Ellis
Sonic trash bags by David Ellis rattle and bump like a percussion team. Trash Talk, 2007. garbage bags, cans, bottles, cardboard, plastic, paper, aluminum, tin, foam, wire, hardware and electronics. Sequence composed in collaboration with Roberto Lange.


The works—some are on timers, some are motion-activated and some require viewer participation—are individual playstations creating an arcade-like chain of activities. Some of the works are beautiful or threatening or groovy, but overall, the show is formless and needs a tighter curatorial hand.

Dennis Oppenheim. The figure hits his head on the bell which sounds like a thunderclap in the big ICA. The piece worked at the opening but was not working when I came back a few days later.

Marclay, a fine orchestrater of sonic material in his own works—like Video Quartet and the memorable The Bell and the Glass—says he considers “Ensemble” like a piece of his own. “I appropriated the other artists’ works,” as he puts it. If so, it’s an experiment that needs more direction.


Claudia Gould, Christian Marclay
ICA Director Claudia Gould introducing show guest-curator Christian Marclay at the opening.

Admittedly, organizing sounds from 32 artists whose pieces were made to be experienced separately is a hard task, but surely not impossible. The brain-dead option would be to make the works all go off simultaneously—creating a terrible screech—and then shut them down abruptly. This sonic two-step would at least create an event with drama and a sense of urgency, and for the viewer it could be like what Allen Ginsberg called “listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,” something we’ve all imagined.

Doug Aitken's table, Linda on the mallets
ICA guard, Linda, taking a turn on Doug Aitken’s sonic table, made for community music making. One of the nicest pieces in the show.

There are great individual pieces in the show that you’ll want to play with. Mineko Grimmer’s Bamboo Forest, a curtain that challenges you at the entrance, is simple and elegant. Doug Aitken’s K-N-O-C-K-O-U-T, a guitar-shaped xylophone table for five players, is charming. And David Ellis’ Trash Talk with garbage bags that rock and thump is funny and poignant. “Ensemble” is a great idea for a show and I hope Marclay gets to try it again.

Eileen Neff
Eileen Neff signing the catalog for her show, Between Us. The catalog’s a gorgeous thing, and so’s the show.

Upstairs, Eileen Neff’s “Between Us” is pitch-perfect. The local artist’s digital photographs are shockingly still, even though many of them capture what appear to be moments of flow and speed. Neff’s works, like Anecdote of the Tree in which a solitary trunk is showcased (a singular wonder in a world that just won’t slow down), are bullets to the heart.

“Ensemble” and “Eileen Neff: Between Us”
Through Dec. 16. Ensemble musical performances every Wed., 5:30pm.
Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St. 215.898.5911.