Contemporary art has its own sound. The international exhibition transforms the SCHIRN into a concert hall and artworks into musical instruments.

Sound is an essential part of contemporary art. Yet musical instruments, which are simultaneously sculptures, represent a recent development in contemporary art that is still relatively unknown. From June 19 to September 8, 2019, the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt is presenting the international group exhibition “Big Orchestra” with artworks that also perform as musical instruments. The show includes works by 16 artists. The playing of these sculptural instruments is the focus of the exhibition, a concept that is itself in a state of flux.

For the duration of the show, the Schirn will become a temporary concert hall in which the works are activated and visitors can experience their sound live. Mobile display architecture will create space for workshops in which the sound of the instruments is explored by musicians in changing ensembles and subsequently presented in concerts. The composition Music for Exhibitions by Orm Finnendahl, created especially for the exhibition, unites samples of all the works in an algorithmically structured score that can be listened to between workshops and concerts.

The artworks presented are considered hybrid objects

The starting point for the concept is the extension of the definition of art and music by the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. The Schirn is showing the production of sound in its entirety, with the audible on a par with the visible. The artworks presented are considered hybrid objects—they are as much visual sculptures as they are musical instruments, and their activation is physical performance.

Nevin Aladağ, detail of Music Room, Brussels, 2015. Ausstellungsansicht „Atopolis“, organised by WIELS, Photo: Kristien Daem

A particular motif in many of the works is music-making as a communicative, social exchange that picks up where other forms of language fail. Such as in “Onyx Music Table” by multimedia artist Doug Aitken. He has replaced the top of a table with a mosaic, which can be played with mallets, similar to a lithophone. The sound sculpture encourages a musical extension of table talk. Nevin Aladağ examines the idea and form of the historic music room, where people meet to make music. Rie Nakajima uses simple means to create unpredictable kinetic sound effects from everyday objects.

The focus is on the performative aspect of music-making

The traditional view of the separation of instrument, score, and performance is continually put to the test and reinterpreted. The focus is thereby on the performative aspect of music-making. The work “Prêt-à-Porter” by Christian Marclay is based on a collection of found garments on which musical notes are printed. The sound emerges from the interaction of performers who wear these clothes, and musicians who read and interpret the notes from their bodies. The artist duo Allora & Calzadilla experiments in a number of works with sound and music, fusing cultural, historical, and geopolitical issues.

Doug Aitken, Onyx Music Table, 2011, Courtesy the Artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Some artists examine other forms of play and reception of music, or they include the sense of touch and sight. For his project “WITHIN”, Tarek Atoui, together with deaf and hearing-impaired collaborators, developed musical instruments devised in such a way that all are able to understand the sound and can actually make musiv with the works. The artist and musician Cevdet Erek examines the imitation of natural phenomena through artistic means. In his work, with which he won the Nam June Paik Award, visitors can create the impression of the sound of the seaside with the touch of their hands on a piece of carpet.

Tarek Atoui, Iteration on Drums #2, 2016, Tarek Atoui (29-09-2018) © PRINTEMPS DE SEPTEMBRE, Foto: Franck Alix

The negotiation of cultural identity and sociopolitical conflicts plays a central role in several of the exhibited artworks. David Zink Yi, for instance, works intensively with the complexity and rich history of Cuban music, which apparently combines African influences with elements of jazz. The work by Carlos Amorales was created for the Mexican Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 and explores the themes of migration and language. In numerous paper works and ceramic flutes the artist has created an abstract alphabet.

Guillermo Galindo presents a sculpture, made from the remains of a border fence. It was created as part of a joint project, where objects thrown away along the border between Mexico and the USA were collected in order to build instruments. Naama Tsabar, in her series “Work On Felt”, examines gender-normative roles and the stereotypes of art with female and male connotations respectively. Large-format, monochrome felt mats, their formalism reminiscent of the Minimal Art of the 1960s, are tensioned using a piano string. Other works in the exhibition focus on improvisation, spontaneity, and coincidence. 

Guillermo Galindo, Ángel exterminador (Exterminating Angel) 2014, Courtesy Guillermo Galindo and Pace / MicGill Gallery, Photo: Richard Misrach
Naama Tsabar, Image from "Transitions #3" performance, 2016, Spinello Projects, Miami, Photo: Diana Larrea

Carsten Nicolai, since the 1990s, has compiled a comprehensive audio archive of electronic sounds. He makes it available on vinyl records with “bausatz noto ∞ (color version)”. Four turntables and headphones in the exhibition invite the visitor to combine sound loops of selected vinyl records into tracks in ever-new variations. The unusual instruments of the project KlangMøbil by Hans van Koolwijk were developed in experimental workshops together with an international team of musicians and composers. On the assumption that the performance of music changes according to space and situation, the instruments combine several possibilities of use.

Carsten Nicolai, bausatz noto ∞ (color version), 1998/2015 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018, Courtesy Galerie EIGEN + ART Leipzig/Berlin, Photo: Julija Stankeviciene