While art is usually thought of as a purely visual experience, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of pieces out there that focus on the ears above everything else. Sound art actually has a rich recent history, from Harry Bertoia’s early music-making sculptures in the ’50s all the way to a conceptual project to ring all of the bells in England at once during the London Olympics. Here are ten eardrum- and mind-blowing examples.
Harry Bertoia’s Sound Sculptures
Harry Bertoia began his career as a furniture designer for clients like Charles and Ray Eames and Knoll. His chairs sold so well that he turned to making sculpture full time, using similar materials to his furniture: metal sheets, wires, and rods. These sound sculptures were aesthetically minimal, but fulfilled a function beyond the visual. They were meant to be played as instruments, with the characteristic grids of rods swaying, colliding with each other and chiming, as would happen in the piece shown above. Some outdoor pieces were made to be triggered by the wind.
Photo credit: The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
Krzysztof Wodiczko, …OUT OF HERE: The Veterans Project, 2009
The Polish new media artist Krzysztof Wodiczko works in video, but the real impact of this piece was its audio component. Viewers are led into a darkened room lit only by a series of high projections that represent windows in the tall space. From out the darkness come the sounds of a battlefield, with rockets whistling by, distant explosions, shouts, and gunfire. Meanwhile blurry images pass on the screens, hinting at the unseen violence. It’s a harrowing experience drawn from the artist’s interviews with veterans and refugees from Iraq, highlighting the psychological as well as physical scars of combat.
Photo credit: Park Avenue Armory
Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, The Murder of Crows, 2011
Cardiff and Miller are a duo known primarily for their sound-based installations, which often take the form of large black speakers scattered throughout a space. Currently on view in New York City’s Park Avenue Armory is The Murder of Crows, a story told through the recollection of three dreams narrated by Cardiff via a small gramophone speaker in the center of the vast space. Ranging through military chanting to progressive-rock electric guitar and indie pop, the experience is both literary and musical, kind of like a movie seen in the dark. (Listen to a 2009 version of the audio installation in Berlin here.)
Martin Creed, Work No. 1197, 2012
Martin Creed is known as a conceptual artist, pulling stunts like having professional runners do sprints through British museums, but for the Olympics he pulled out his musical side. The full title of Work No. 1197 is “All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes,” which describes perfectly what happened when all of England grabbed whatever bells they could find at 8:12am on July 27, 2012.
Bruce Nauman, Days, 2009
Bruce Nauman’s studio practice often reduces art to its most fundamental forms: ideas and actions. His deeply introspective, often cerebral but always fun projects satirize conceptualism but remain super-smart. Days, one of his most iconic recent works, is a continuous audio stream of seven voices reciting the days of the week in random order. It’s an interrogation of meaning and perception, pushing the boundaries of language.
Christian Marclay, Guitar Drag, 2000
This video piece also exists as a vinyl LP, but you might not want to listen to it. As the title might suggest, the work consists of Marclay dragging an electric guitar by a rope through fields and on roads, the dissonance acting as commentary on the chaotic nature of sound. Also, it’s a pretty funny riff on hair metal guitar badassery.
Ryoji Ikeda, Spectra, 2004
The Japanese new media artist created Spectra for the TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport, a space designed by architect and designer Eero Saarinen. The installation echoes the building’s wide, empty spaces and beguiles the eyes with optical illusion-inducing white lights: it looks like the tunnel goes on forever. The non-visual part of this piece is an ultra-high frequency sound component that hovers just on the verge of hearing, inducing an otherworldly atmosphere.
Artie Vierkant, Content Detection Days (for Bruce Nauman), 2012
Vierkant played on the implicit rules of music pirating in creating this sound installation, which features eight popular audio tracks that have been altered to avoid triggering copyright detection software. By subtly reworking the tracks with tactics like changing the speed, adding blank space, and switching stereo channels, Vierkant is playing with the free-for-all nature of the Internet and commenting on the ease of piracy.
Photo credit: Interview Magazine
Yoko Ono, Cough Piece, 1960s
Ono is both a musician and a conceptual artist, and this piece neatly ties into both. Cough Piece is composed of approximately 30 minutes of Ono coughing. It might sound silly, but that was part of the point — the artist belongs to the Fluxus movement, which prizes play and often incorporates a strong sense of humor. Give it a listen here.
Carsten Nicolai, wellenwanne, 2001-2008
Artist Carsten Nicolai’s alter-ego is the minimalist musician and DJ Alva Noto, so it’s only appropriate that his sculptures include some music as well. For this piece, Nicolai filled four trays with water and rested them on four loudspeakers so the sound would create ripples and waves in the standing water, transforming an audio phenomenon into a visual one.