A shortened version of this article appeared at Sydney Time Out. THIS EVENT HAS FINISHED
Bird noises at The Domain – aren’t they there already? US musician and sound artist Stephen Vitiello’s installation The Birds opens at the National Gallery of NSW on 11 August 2010. The parkland surrounding the gallery is full of birdlife – but Vitiello’s installation promises something more intriguing, more unnatural.
(Image: Stephen Vitiello records outback sounds for his Kaldor project The Sound of Red Earth 2010. Photo: Matt Flowers. Courtesy Kaldor Public Art Projects)
Before anyone starts to imagine that sticking your head out the window would be the same, consider his World Trade Center Recordings: Winds after Hurricane Floyd of 1999. Part of his skill is finding the unnoticed –just as the film director zooms in on the eye at the keyhole, or mesmerises with a slow-motion dripping tap, Vitiello sets his recording equipment to capture the overlooked. At the Trade Center he listened in to a world that included whipping winds which made the buildings creak like old wooden ships – but I’m even more fascinated by his use of photocells to translate light into sound – from the 91st floor he discovered that the red Colgate clock on the Hudson River produced a particularly beautiful tone.
The Birds is positioned at the portico entrance to the gallery. The old-world airy entrance is no doubt contributing to Vitiello’s piece. He likes how galleries can be malleable to deepen the environment he is creating for us – there is greater control over the speakers and the audience than in less formal public spaces – and other artworks can be introduced into the space. Here Vitiello gives us a space based on Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds.
His installation is inspired by Australian native birds. Field recordings are the basis of his works but he’s an artist not just a collector. Just as natural history museums present the Halloween-like horrific faces of insects under extreme magnification – this is what he’s doing in sound terms – showing us what is usually hidden. These are only elements of his overall work – which are incorporated almost collage-like into a final piece. Context and manipulation may contribute to his compositions. He admires subtlety, depth and simplicity – a consideration in his own practise.
In some ways Vitiello is also a sculptor – caught up in recording or presenting within three dimensional spaces. The gallery promises that we will be caught by surprise – by a voice or a bird singing. It’s probably even more truthful to say he considers four dimensions – as time is another factor. Although here it is more open-ended than with his concerts or CDs as a visitor may stay a few seconds or an hour, but it is still part of the creation process.
Sound art historically began with the Futurists and Luigi Russolo's manifesto The Art of Noises. It has developed into many forms. Many of us are not so practised in our appreciation of sound art as say visual art. There are some grey areas that are unique to this medium – such as the definition of sound art and its distinction to experimental music. Let me flag up just a few factors a sound artist might consider: the choice of material, how it is recorded (for example stereo or binaural microphones - binaural mimics the positioning of our ears and is good for catching the movement of sound such as footsteps around us), processing, as well as the presentation space and acoustics. This medium can encompass silence – Vitiello has used a low bass frequency which we can’t hear but creates movement at the speaker’s surface.
The Curlew on Magnetic Island has perhaps the most gut-twisting bird-cry I’ve ever heard – and is viewed by certain Aboriginal groups as bad luck. Your head tells you it’s just superstition but the primitive creature inside of you is cowering. If you doubt the power of this medium consider this: music in films, why some bars are empty and others are full, how certain bird cries can instantly bring to mind summers evenings.
Both Vitiello and du Maurier have drawn on the real world as their starting point. Part of our fascination with Vitiello’s work concerns its links to the real world. This also adds to the power of du Maurier’s chilling tale in which the birds go against nature and attack humans. The book inspired Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name so I’m sure you’ve got an idea of these clashes.
Du Maurier’s novelette concerns with how we react in the face of the unknown. The birds’ aggressive behaviour was never explained by the author. The characters have different reactions - some choose to deny the severity of the circumstances and decide to shoot at the birds – but the farmhand Nat needs to find some kind of explanation. Vitiello might be cleverly tying the main theme of the book to the gallery visitors. I think a most interesting component of this work will be the visitor reaction – watch out because we’ve been promised that Vitiello will ‘catch a listener by surprise”.
Images courtesy of Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney and Kaldor Public Art Projects. This article was written to accompany The Birds by Stephen Vitiello at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of the 20th Kaldor Public Art Project (Wed 11 Aug to Sun 12 Sep 2010).