As predominantly visual animals, we rarely think of exhibitions as non-visual experiences. Whether the subject to exhibit is a painting, a sculpture, a mural or a tapestry, it usually involves the use of our eyes. But what about the other senses? Why don't we have taste shows, scent exhibits or tactile displays? I'll leave you with this thought for now and hopefully this will inspire someone to design such a sensorial spectacle, overtaking the visual supremacy.
But for today, I wanted to talk about sound and hearing, possibly our second most used sense and definitely one that our species has always used to express and convey emotions. Before we even invented drums, we listened to the rhythm of the rain on leaves. Before we created the first string instruments, we listened to the calls of birds and the cries of monkeys. Our world, our music, our society has been shaped by the sounds of our environment, sounds that are more and more difficult to hear in urban jungles and that, even more worryingly, we are becoming less and less educated to pay attention to.
So when I walked into Chris Watson's "Hy Brasil" sound installation in Leeds last month, the experience felt at the same time very natural and very unusual.
Hy Brasil is a fictional and mysterious island, hidden in fog somewhere off the coast of Ireland. Apparently, it reveals itself to human eye and ear just one day every seven year, and we were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. In his installation, Chris takes you through this imaginary place exclusively through sounds, starting deep in the sea around Hy Brasil and then allowing you to climb up the green mountain at the centre of the island and reach the rocky windswept summit, all in just 30 minutes.
As I entered the Howard Assembly room at the Opera North I found myself in a pleasantly dark and warm space. Several stage lights at the corners of the long hall were projecting a deep blue atmospheric light towards the centre of the room, where several white soft pillows were laid out on the floor. All around, a few deck chairs of the kind you could only see on a beach, were adding an exotic dimension to the otherwise surreal space. The walls were wooden and bare, nothing else on them to distract the visitor from the main character of the show, Sound.
Coming out of more speakers than I could even spot or count, an orchestration of sounds was floating to my ears. Bubbles, waves, some distant whale songs, a few crustacean clicks, and the deep comforting sound of the sea. I joined the few other visitors and lied down on the pillows.
Above me, hundreds of thin noodle-like filaments were hanging from the ceiling. I felt like a small sea creature looking right into the mouth of a jellyfish. Occasionally, light passed through the transparent tentacles and the tips came to light, reminding me of deep-sea luminescent animals, or uncontaminated pregnant starry skies. I completely relaxed over the pillows and closed my eyes.
And so the journey through Hy Brasil began, starting in the deep sea, emerging to fabulous pebbly shores, through deep humid jungle, and into high cloud forest, to finally end on a mountain top, overlooking the green island, with nothing but ocean around. I have memories of Hy Brasil that are as vivid as those from the Peruvian rainforest, even though one is a place I have visited and spent many days exploring and one is a place that doesn't exist and that I never saw.
I can not find words nor images (rightly so!) to describe how amazing a journey through sounds can be. I remember swimming out of the cold water and drying myself in the morning sun, as the soft light of dawn gave way to the vivid colours of the dense jungle. One bird call followed another, intricate, convoluted, sometimes so bizarre I would open my eyes just to check no animals entered the room. I am almost certain a cheeky Oropendola sneaked in one of the recordings as well! Then it was the turn of the howler monkeys with their unbelievable, almost grotesque call that has fascinated humans ever since our two species met. And then at the top, the wind, the open space, the infinite straight horizon rolling out in the distance, a few seagulls and a peaceful rest after a long hike.
I would recommend this journey to anyone who can spare half an hour of their time to day-dream, but unfortunately I was there on the last day of the installation and Hy Brasil has now disappeared behind a thick curtain of fog, concealed from our human ears. We might have to wait a long time before we can take another trip to this wonderful island but in the meanwhile, keep your ears peeled for more sound exhibits around the country. Hopefully there will be many more like this one, and maybe one day we'll make one ourselves!
Greta, Oropendola Productions