Aside from the sound of an employee occasionally on the phone (usually in hushed tones but not always), the gallery is normally silent. While this silence is generally understood to be an effort to diminish distractions from the work – the same function as the supposed blankness of the white-cube space – this convention of silence has been in the process of being dismantled for around 60 years, and the experience of a soundtrack – or music – in the gallery seems to speak to a certain attitude towards artistic production which is possibly in opposition to the vacuum-packed gallery/museum presentation.
The Barbican Centre recently presented Toyin Ojih Odutola: A Countervailing Theory in The Curve space – an exhibition of drawings with the aim of reading as a chronological experience: a complex combination of graphic novel or picture book and museum-like exhibit depicting a series of events through illustrations and seemingly authentic artefacts.
‘Set within a surreal landscape inspired by the rock formations of Plateau State in central Nigeria, the works depict a fictional prehistoric civilisation, dominated by female rulers and served by male labourers. Each community is forbidden from forging sexual or emotional relationships outside their own gender. Drawing on an eclectic range of sources, from ancient history to popular culture, the artist considers these new power dynamics and the consequences of their transgression.’
Towards the end of the exhibition is a statement from the artist (writing under the guise of the Director of the Jos Plateau Research Initiative) creating a fiction in which the images are found artefacts – primitive drawings whose discovery redefines our history. The drawings are imagined to be prelinguistic: the kind of prehistoric figures which predate and inform the development of language – this very language becoming the vehicle for the social hierarchies and cultural prejudices which are critiqued in the story of Ojih Odutola’s drawn protagonists. The exhibition creates a beautifully cyclical model of history, and the implication of the broader art of drawing and painting extends the artists critique of society into a critique of the artist herself as we are forced to compare the contemporary painter with this fictionalised notion of the primitive draftsman/early historian.
It is with this sense of self-awareness/critique in mind that I want to discuss the 12-channel soundtrack Ceremonies Within, composed by Peter Adjaye in response to Ojih Odutola’s work, which is heard in three movements played simultaneously throughout the space. While traditionally the movements of a piece of music are played one after the other, Adjaye converts this temporal succession into a physical one – allowing the observer to pass from one movement to the next in their own time, with the movements bleeding spatially into one another. Adjaye uses a combination of instruments such as the ‘Oghene’, whose materials coincide with that of the Jos Plateau (on which the drawings are based), and modern electronic synthesizers and orchestral arrangements. This combination of sounds that are ‘natural’ and have a ‘truly organic resonance’ (Q&A with Africa in Words) with synthesizers – abstractions from physical instruments – serves to reinforce the element of timelessness found in the drawings, while also drawing on what Adjaye describes as an oversimplified classification of African musical culture by the West – creating a snapshot of where we are in the storyboard of human musical culture.
Both artists create this cyclical motion of fabrication and history – the two elements of the exhibition ultimately becoming indistinguishable – and it is this rigorously reflexive collaboration that outlines one of the simple statements that music in the gallery makes. The soundtrack is indicative of a self-assessment, an extension of the broad self-critique that is taking place, which ultimately forces us to accept the ephemerality of the exhibition – the sense that the outcome is not a picture on the wall, but rather the presence and agency of the viewer, navigating through Adjaye’s movements and Ojih Odutola’s narrative. Ojih Odutola is not drawing because that is what she must do – she is drawing in order to talk about drawing: about what it might once have been (a record of history or an early language) and what it has now become. Adjaye is not creating music because that’s what people like to hear – he is making a soundtrack in order to talk bout sound: about resonance, materials, and what instruments and sound might once have been and what they have now become.
Music in the gallery, in the sense that Ojih Odutola and Adjaye employ it, is not something to listen to while you ‘shop’ – a playlist of familiar and easy listening. It is instead an indication that perhaps if one of these drawings is taken away and hung on a wall – which it will be – and if Adjaye’s soundtrack is taken and listened to on the train or the bus – which it will be – the conversation which it now has with a viewer/listener will be very different.
The Barbican (among other places), in collaboration with Toyin Ojih Odutola and Peter Adjaye, is rejecting the notion of the gallery as a visual supermarket, and it seems that the presence of the soundtrack is a hallmark of this attitude. Sound-as-art has been engaged in this exploration since John Cage in the 60s – a reference which Adjaye makes in the Q&A with Africa in Words, and, as with cage’s work, Adjaye’s soundtrack – particularly it’s spatial arrangement – refuses to be extracted from it’s context. The entire exhibition refuses to be taken home and demands instead to exist only as it is now.