Tag Archives: art

the silence of sound

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

I love sound but I love silence more. Actually I love the area between the two the best. By this I mean the sounds that you hear when there isn’t supposed to be any sound. For instance where I live I can list all the sounds I hear: the fridge, the tertiary highway with intermittent cars, birds, rain or snow (yep, snow makes a sound), coyotes and wolves very occasionally, when the neighbours are up you can hear chainsaws and some talking, and at night when it is really, really cold you can hear trees cracking and snapping – sometimes making a low gong noise. So, people come to my place and always say, “Wow, it is so quiet here.” But I can hear things all the time. So, no, it isn’t quiet.

We have a hydro pole on our property. After moving here I read a Harper’s article about electro magnetic fields or EMFs. In the article it told the stories of different people who could swear they heard the lives of the people several kilometres away from them through the hydro wires. Some also mentioned the phone wires which are on the same pole. There was also terrifying things in the article like people getting neurological disorders from being so close to EMFs. I chose to ignore the latter stories. For several years I was convinced I could hear other lives coursing through those wires. I would lie awake at night listening to see if I could discern words from these transmissions. Was it my imagination? Possibly. For a time things and places and people would bounce around in my brain. Through this I came to appreciate sounds and the world of sounds and this between world of sound and silence.

Most sound artists are from cities which makes sense since cities are clusters of sound and energy. I always feel like a spark getting plugged into something when I visit. My lights come on and I ‘radiate’ while there. I usually come home exhausted from the experience. I find that city people need to unplug regularly and use places like where I live to do so. I get that. But city sounds never inspire me the way non-city sounds do. There is an ambience to the forest that you can barely verbalise. In the years I have lived where I do I have seen and heard trees falling in the forest. It’s an observation no longer funny but… it still resonates because sound in places where there isn’t supposed to be any seems very subversive.

I have become extremely sensitive to sounds over the years. I go to very few first run movies as the sound systems make me feel like I am having a heart attack. I have been this way long before the reality of a heart attack was something to consider. I also love silent films because they give me even more reasons to use my imagination. During a long talk with a film maker friend a few weeks ago, I realized the problem I have always had with film is that I don’t get to do any of the work. I gravitate to things where I can insert myself, or rather participate by figuring out what I am looking at and listening to. I think that if I went to hell it would have the kind of syrupy soundtrack that roars across the screen amplifying what I am supposed to feel. In fact I have turned off Netflix and other films right away if the soundtrack even hints of augmented emotion. I find it manipulative and condescending but mostly it just hurts my ears.

The thing about sound is that it is mysterious. Years ago 7/11 stores in the US played classical music outside to dissuade loitering teenagers. It sort of worked but lots of adults hated it too. Then there was that great and now campy scene in Jaws where Robert Shaw runs his nails down a chalkboard to get everyone’s attention – a very avant garde film moment in an otherwise extremely mainstream movie. Jaws is one of the few Spielberg movies with a soundtrack I can take. More recently comdedian Aziz Ansari mentioned how the minute you hear that Arabic maqam music in a movie you know that it’s a terrorist lair. In fact he went on to say if perhaps the movies didn’t use such music or motifs perhaps we wouldn’t be in the chaos we are in today. Sound matters which is why film makers that are lazy about using it do not make the kind of films I ever want to see.

Had I to do this all over again I would have gone into the creation of ambient sound and music. I like to think that my work is infiltrated by my being influenced by sound as much as the visual world around me. At night in the woods the trees take on a spiky silhouette pointing toward the very busy Milky Way that I am lucky to see often. There is a rustle in them, and if you listen really closely something even more intense – you hear yourself. The minute one is able to align their heartbeat and breathe with the universe in that way the noise of life is pushed into the background. Snow falling, rain, birds and even the questionable transmissions of EMFs become more of a reality. The tranquil act of experiencing this ‘silence’ makes the occasional nightmare of dealing with the world worth it.

The above YouTube clips are:

Charlie Chaplin in a scene from Modern Times. Chaplin wrote, directed and scored the music. If there had been dialogue in this scene it would not be one of the most effective and brilliant moments in any movie.

An Arctic ocean ice breaker idling in the ice. This video is an exact and wonderful example of a landscape based art work that merges nature and humans, all through sound. The visuals are great too but you will also enjoy this without looking at it.

Mystical Landscapes

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Living in the woods has a lot of advantages, like experiencing how the indifference of nature puts things in perspective.  I grew up thinking that this indifference was horrifying – something so many philosophers and poets have hung their hat on; that the natural world is full of death.  But what I realize now is that first, we are part of the natural world and secondly, our attempts at dominating it have failed so miserably that we are now in danger of our own extinction. So, you could say humans are all about death, and perhaps our culture is dystopian because of this switch. If you actually think human endeavour has any significance at all just watch a documentary about solar flares. In 1989 the entire province of Quebec lost power for nine hours due to one. And they’re getting worse.

I have been of late suffering from posting fatigue. I am deeply sympathetic with my American neighbours but one of the reasons I live where I do is so that I can turn things off and go skiing.  Like a church was to my ancestors, the woods are where I find meaning and where I feel free.  So the AGO exhibition Mystical Landscapes should really be in my wheel house however I had very little interest in what looked like a flake fest about the natural world.

I admit to being really turned off right away by a title like Mystical Landscapes since my artistic life is a Sisyphean journey; being a landscape painter marks you immediately as someone who is either an amateur, ancient or a flake. That the AGO, a gallery with a fairly sketchy reputation (awful block buster exhibitions mixed with overtly politically correct tones and generally not greatly organized so that you are always six deep with people in front of certain art works) has an exhibition with the word mystical in the title – well it makes me really, really wary. But, I saw that there were some cool paintings in it I have never seen before and we have a membership so… we went.

Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming emotional trip that Mystical Landscapes is. First off there is a ton of work in the exhibition you would never see unless you actually went to Stockholm or Norway or France. And some of the painting is divine. All of it landscape based. All of it wonderful, not a dud in the exhibition, well except for one or two silly pieces at the end regarding the cosmos but actually by the time I got there I found them charming. The strongest aspect of the exhibition is the curating. That is a line I almost never write.

Edvard Munch's The Sun in Mystical Landscapes - as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.
Edvard Munch’s The Sun in Mystical Landscapes – as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.

Organized by the AGO in partnership with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the exhibition’s intention is pretty clear and honestly still didn’t make me necessarily want to go: “The years between 1880 and 1930 were marked by rampant materialism and rapid urbanization. Disillusioned with traditional religious institutions, many European, Scandinavian and North American artists searched for an unmediated spiritual path through mystical experiences.” But this is exactly what the exhibition is about and the curators did very little to interfere with this very clear intent. Many of the artists in the exhibition may not have had straight forward mystical experiences (can you have a straight forward mystical experience?) but as in the case of Emily Carr who used gasoline to thin her oils, they may have had one unintentionally whether they were trying to or not.

I admit to feeling some nationalist pride at seeing the work of Canadian artists alongside titans of early twentieth century painting. But much more than that were the many ideas about landscape: urban dystopia, carnage of the land during war, depictions of sparkling cities with night skies, places of worship and work embedded in the ‘wilderness’, ominous and wondrous vistas, places of meaning, forests that are/were ineffable and sublime, and visions of the cosmos which until this period were only seen through telescopes by the naked eye.  Brought together, the famous and the not so famous work told an eschatological story without cliché.

One painting by Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley created during the last year of the First World War , Gas Chamber at Seaford I had seen before, perhaps at the War Museum. Here though it told a different story. As the men emerged from being gassed in a trench the surrounding hills and sky, seemingly untouched, competed directly for our attention. The split focus made you recognize that the earth is also a victim of our tragedies but also a resilient entity which we have no real power over. So timely was this piece that it had as many people surrounding it as both Van Goghs. One viewer, a war vet and artist told us that the thing about war is that you end up in these unfathomably beautiful places, in his case Afghanistan, and it creates a deep existential crisis. Three young women in head scarves listened in and nodded their heads.

These people, perhaps in another incarnation in their lives might have existed together in a war torn place, ravaged by a world gone mad. But here we all were, present in an art gallery together.  We were there to see how landscapes can be mystical and must be mystical if they are needed to be.

Mystical Landscapes has been extended to Feb. 12

Please read the Toronto Star Murray White’s excellent review as well.