Sound and music have always played an important role in the work of Anri Sala. In his current show at Alfonso Artiaco Gallery they form a leitmotif that accompanies the visitor throughout the show.
The show opens with No Window No Cry (Luigi Cosenza, Fabbrica Olivetti, Pozzuoli), an installation consisting of a music box set in a window from the Olivetti Factory in Pozzuoli. The mysteriously turning handle of the music box
welcomes the viewer by playing the tune of The Clash’s 1981 “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. This sculptural piece alludes to the soundtrack of Sala’s film Le Clash, likewise questioning the boundaries between on-screen fiction and off-
In a subsequent room the visitor encounters yet another sculpture: a “sound object” in the appearance of a snare drum playing to a still life, hanging upon it. The visual premise for and structure of the arrangement of the four suspended human skulls in Still life in the Doldrums (Don’t Explain) come from Paul Cezanne’s Pyramid of Skulls. The art historian Francoise Cachin describes Cezanne’s 1901 drawing as “displaying an assertiveness very much at odds with the usual reserve of domestic still life tableaux”. The skulls in Sala’s piece have been arranged in the same configuration as the painting, then hand-painted to replicate some of Cezanne’s original oil gestures. They are played by drumsticks that have been carved in a way to resemble human fibulas on one end and drumstick heads on the other. They are balanced in such a manner that at certain, more vigorous points of the piece they play both the drum and the under side of the skulls. As with all of Sala’s Doldrums, the drumsticks here are only triggered by and respond to an acoustic action that makes the drum-skin vibrate; there is absolutely no mechanic element in them.
This work has an audible soundtrack as well as a low frequency line that Sala has constructed for the drumsticks to respond to in tandem. The audible soundtrack combines short sections of the musical arrangements for early Tom a Jerry cartoons, composed by Scott Bradley, with short instrumental excerpts from the song “Don’t Explain” by renowned jazz singer Billy Holiday as well as a cover version by Nina Simone.
Whereas the audience for the cartoon may be substantially different from the jazz audience, both compositions were contemporaneous to each other. Adding another layer, jazz emerged around the turn of the century coinciding with the execution of Pyramid of Skulls by Cezanne, yet another contemporaneous event contained within the work.
Continuing through the rooms of the gallery, the visitor encounters Moth in the Doldrums, a work consisting of a pair of snare drums: one standing on the floor, the other suspended from the ceiling. The sound of the piece is based on Overtone Oscillations, a performance that the artist presented earlier this year at the Barbican in London. In that work, Sala merges two globally celebrated melodies — “The Internationale”, otherwise known as the workers’ anthem and “La Marseillaise”, the renowned French anthem. Before Pierre Degeyter set “The Internationale” in 1888 to the music it currently uses, for seventeen years the lyrics were sung to the melody of “La Marseillaise”, which explains their affinity. The vocal merging of both songs was made possible by an overtone singer’s capacity to sing two tones at once. In Sala’s Moth in the Doldrums the voice of the singer splits in two parts — overtones and fundamentals — each played by its corresponding drum. The suspended drum plays back the overtones, while its drumsticks respond to the low frequencies of the fundamentals. The concealed speaker inside the standing drum plays back the fundamentals, whilst its drumsticks’ rat-tat-tat is triggered by the overtones. Thus the tightly woven structure that the singer created within its voice is now split within the pair of the drums, leaving the visitor to oscillate between the two.
Works on paper are shown alongside the gallery walls, in the intervals between the aforementioned sound-based sculptures.