There will never be silence: scores, instructions, notations and the materialisation of the ephemeral

posted on 20 Apr 2014 14:35 by Hanna Hoelling
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Beyond the realm of secondary documentation and documentary, archival record, there is a score, instruction and notation that might convey the idea of an artwork. During one of the site visits in Hanna Hölling's course Beyond the Object Principle, the participants looked into the relation between the score and the material of an artwork and examined the various systems of notations and the possibilities for their materialisation. The students had the opportunity to examine the ways in which the legacy of avant-garde, experimental music and Cage’s synthesis of chance operations influenced artists who started to work increasingly with notations and the event – the shortest form of textual notation that emerged in the attitude of Fluxus.

Cabelle Ahn, M.A. student in the class, formulated an interesting summary of this meeting:

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John Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952), known as the “silent piece,” is an iconic masterpiece in the development of experimental music and the visual arts in the mid-twentieth century. The piece is composed of three tacets, in which the enactor of the score performs silence—making no intentional sounds—and in turn allowing chance operations of the environment to fill in gap with meaning. The work thus questions authorial authority but within an established framework.

Taking Cage’s 4’ 33” as an anchor, the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) titled “There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’ 33”” brings together diverse media—from photographs, paintings, sculpture and drawings to narrate the genesis and the afterlife of Cage’s piece. The title of the exhibition is partially appropriated from Cage’s private letter to his friend Helen Wolff in which he defended 4’ 33”, writing, “The piece is not actually silent (there will never be silence until death comes which never comes); it is full of sound, but sounds which I did not think of beforehand, which I hear for the first time the same time others hear. What we hear is determined by our own emptiness, our own receptivity; we receive to the extent we are empty to do so.”

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David Platzker, the curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, who curated the show with Jon Hendricks, a Fluxus Consulting Curator, offered our seminar a fascinating and revealing tour. The exhibition is unofficially divided into three parts, the prehistory of 4’ 33”, the response to 4’ 33” by Cage and his contemporaries such as Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, and Dick Higgins, and the surprising legacy of the piece—and I use the word surprising here as many of the works in this last section do not easily reveal their indebtedness to Cage. David’s narrative, too, followed this unofficial tripartite division beginning with Cage’s early foray into the New York art world—from Cage’s stay with Peggy Guggenheim, his early collaborations with Max Ernst, and his first in a long line of collaborations with the MoMA via an organized concert on 7 February, 1943. In the period directly leading up to the development of 4’ 33” the exhibition fills in the proverbial historical silence with works by Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Mark Tobey, and Annie and Joseph Albers. Inconspicuously placed near a white painting by Barnett Newman is Cage’s handwritten score for 4’ 33”, which serves as a conceptual and physical fulcrum for the overall installation.

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In fact, the drawings are the only material artifacts of Cage’s score in this exhibition. David explained later that there was indeed a conscious curatorial decision made to not include any video or audio performances of 4’ 33”. According to David, the nature of the score was intended to highlight the inherent fallacy of the instrument and of performance since each re-enactors of the score are nothing more than metronomes, with the “objecthood” of the score to be found in Cage’s concept underlying the piece, and in the sounds produced by the environment rather than in any re-performances.

With regards to the concerns raised in our seminar, a particularly interesting moment came when David pointed out that an instruction of how to make Rauschenberg’s white painting stood in for a white painting, since the show was drawn largely from in-house collections and the MoMA didn’t own Rauschenberg’s white painting. However, this substitution highlighted the variability and liminality of the art object—themes applicable to Cage’s piece. Another interesting point of discussion arose over the installation of Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (1962-64). The version in the MoMA exhibition was in fact a newly purchased blank film, which David described as a “surrogate” for the original work. David mentioned that while some curators show Paik’s original film canister alongside the projected film, he explained that he viewed the canister as nothing more than an envelope for the original artwork. Here, the material afterlife of object seemed to be secondary to the original concept underlying the artworks.

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The last section of the exhibition was filled with later works that were influenced by Cage’s 4’ 33” with works by artists such as Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham Robert Ryman, Walter de Maria, and Fred Sandback. David highlighted Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) with the sound of its own making —with the version on display as another newly made surrogate of the original work. In fact, this erosion of the materiality of the artwork by allowing the embodiments of artistic concepts to serve as the surrogate for the original artwork, seemed to be the overall conceit of the exhibition. In a manner, the show was an archive for Cage’s 4’ 33” and it may even be proposed that the installations could be considered as surrogate for Cage’s score.

At the end of the visit, our seminar carried out a first-hand exploration of the allographic potentials of Cage’s score. We reenacted the first tacet of 4’ 33” outside the MoMA. Ambient sounds such as the sweeping of the broom, the noises from passing cars, the sizzling and the banging from the hotdog stand, and the clicks of women walking by seemed to suddenly take on a rhythmic quality and together bring forth a composition that had only been in potentia in the background.

Image 1 There Will Never Be Silence: exhibition curated by David Platzker, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014.

Image 2 John Cage. 4'33" (In Proportional Notation). 1952/53. Ink on paper, each page: 11 x 8 1/2" (27.9 x 21.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Image 3 Jackson Mac Low. Drawing-Asymmetry #10. 1961. Ink on paper. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Image 4 Dick Higgins. Graphis No. 2 (or possibly No. 23). c. 1958–59. Pencil on paper. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Image 5 Nam June Paik. Zen for Film (1962-64) installed in the exhibition There Will Never Be Silence.

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