Bernhard Leitner EARSPACEBODYSOUND
Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Vienna, 2011
"A line of sound is produced when sound moves along a series of loudspeakers ... Lines of sound can also define space," wrote Bernhard Leitner in 1971. These sentences laid down the principle underpinning the singular installations he has been realising over the past 40 years. Imposing order on the diffuse vibrations of the air detected by the ear, he marshalls his recalcitrant materials into lines or curves, plotting differently shaped spaces and imposing new ways of defining and listening to sound. Engrossing and extensively researched, Earspacebodysound charts the development of a body of work that challenges our assumptions as to the nature and constitution of space. As opposed to diffusing sound in space, the Austrian architect-turned-artist forms space through sound, turning the conventional relationship between these two practices on its head. Scattered throughout the string of interconnecting rooms making up the gallery, each installation has been allocated a distinct space in which to develop its sonic personality. Key early works such as Sound Chair (1975) create intimate sound spaces that are experienced inside the body. Here, visitors lie in a reclining chair with loudspeakers mounted beneath it that repeatedly diffuse rolling sounds under their backs and feet. The piece shows that sound is perceived not only with the ears but with the entire body, different parts of which 'hear' differently - unlike visual perception, whose unique sense organ is the eye. Vertical Space (1975) likewise explores alternative forms of listening. The visitor stands on a raised circular platform while speakers installed above his head and below his feet alternately emit percussive sounds that direct his attention upwards or downwards. Unlike normal 'horizontal' listening, where sound events tend to occur in a broad lateral perceptual field, vertical listening offers an elongated but strangely reduced perspective on the world. The stark simplicity of the visual elements Leitner uses recalls 1960s minimalism, but like his pared down sound materials, they also ensure that the listener remains focused on the question of space. This is the case in the aforementioned pieces for individual listeners, but also in his large-scale architectural installations, which can be experienced by several people at a time. Black and white photographs on display document early examples of such works - functional experimental set-ups consisting of long bars with speakers attached to them running vertically up a wall or horizontally across the floor. The geometric shapes engendered by these early pieces contrast sharply with the spaces formed by more recent large-scale works, several of which are on show here. Serpentinata (2004) creates fluid, atmospheric spaces, that echo ongoing sonic and architectural investigations into ways of modifying the sound of a room or space. The piece consists of two snake-like intersecting PVC tubes that cross the large central space of the gallery, forming arches through which the visitor can pass. The loudspeakers attached to the tubes generate successive sonic ambiences: a composition of short sharp electronic sounds that move in different directions and at different speeds, engendering a prickly, closed-in space, is followed by a series of long whooshes that hurtle along the tubes from one speaker to the next, suggesting an airy, more open space. Visitors follow these invisible movements with their eyes or take hesitant dance-like steps, trying to catch the sounds asthey whizz by. Hearing, vision and the sense of touch magically converge in these contracting, narrowing or expanding spaces, as Leitner likes to call them - thereby coining a new vocabulary with which to describe the movement of sound in space. Also on view are sketches filled with arrows that represent these movements in graphic form, constituting a personalised notational system and a means of preserving and reconstituting his ephemeral works. Other recent large-scale sound spaces on show convey the impression not of mobility, but of stability. In Pulsating Silence (2007), sound is used as a building material, challenging perceptual givens: loudspeakers are attached to the outer sides of two parallel steel panels, creating a soft humming sound that begins and ends abruptly when the listener enters or exits the space between the panels. Sonic as well as physical limits mark the transition from inside to outside, showing that sound can be used to form an enduring, discrete space. Equally spectacular is Sound Mirror Path (2011), in which a physical and a sonic arc span a passage between two rooms. Two loudspeakers installed beneath the floor emit fluttering sounds that reflect off a curved wooden structure overhead - in such a way as to form a cloud of sound that underscores and reinforces the visible arc. Here sound does not, as is its wont, appear and disappear, but seems to collect above the listener's head, like an auditory equivalent of Op Art. In a very different vein is the short silent video in which Leitner explores the common ground between dance and sound. Based on a filmed performance of a dancer wending her way through the tubes of the Serpentinata, it was made by repeatedly stopping the projection of the film and painting over the dancer's figure . In the finished work, these immobile blue or white Matisse-like silhouettes gradually populate the screen, concatenating time, motion and space. Over and above their artistic qualities, Leitner's prescient experiments resonate uncannily with current architectural, sonic as well as choreographic research.