Installation / Sound / Visual Arts

Review of Uncanny Sound @ Tactic Cork

Curated by Liam Slevin
14th – 24th September 2011

Review by Rachel Warriner

Entering the old FAS building on Sullivan’s Quay is in itself a bit of an uncanny experience – the terrifying anxiety about tax interviews that lingers in the walls, and the memories of VRT monies past (and the things you could have spent them on) floats just beneath perception. Even without the effects of an irrational fear of bureaucracy, the FAS building actually works well as the setting for an exhibition based around themes of the uncanny: the walls crumble, the automatic front doors need to be slid open by hand, signs point to no longer existent offices and counters. It would be a shame, then, that most of the pieces in Uncanny Sound in Tactic Cork are not strictly uncanny, if this wasn’t a compelling and well conceived exhibition in which the works fit neatly together in a coherent way. Curated by Liam Slevin, Uncanny Sound is a dark and brooding experience that builds convincingly on a type of practice and aesthetic that seems particularly relevant in the wider context of Cork City at present.

When it comes to uncanniness, the most successful of these is Jessica Conway’s video piece Hih Hih, the visual part of which is obscured on first entering the gallery. Its soundtrack echoes through the space to meet you even before you enter the dim and shadowy room. It is a terrifying and demented laugh, the kind that reminds of evil clowns in horror movies. Walking around the space, looking at the other works, a subconscious picture of the laughing figure is built, but this picture is only brought to your attention upon encountering a small television screen with a single image of white sans serif text that reads ‘Hih Hih’. The jolt of unconscious expectations being brought suddenly into attention is a type of uncanny occurrence; the familiar becoming suddenly unfamiliar, a rupture in the seamlessness of experience. The shock of there being no image upon which to fix this fantasy makes this piece both witty and thoughtful, an effective play with the sinister and the expected.

Also sinister was Sarah Lundy’s Personnel Apocalypse, video of a flapping moth trapped in a cylindrical prison that was lit from behind. The allusion in the title to bureaucracy and its sense of futile action and dehumanising constraint made sense in the context of the site. But it is also an aesthetically compelling piece, the close image of the creature makes it look unworldly, an anxiety about the types of alien movement of insects contrasts to the fascination of being able to study its struggle against constraint. It is absorptive and lyrical, nicely contrasted by the droning sounds of the other exhibitions, and the pervasive laughter of Conway’s piece. By contrast, Restless by Stephen McGlynn is premised on the glance, denying the viewer the chance to engage with it at length by the use of a strobe light that aggressively flickers on a sign reading ‘Restless’. The font of the sign, a satisfying cursive that is reminiscent of 1950s sweet shops, implies a sort of homeliness and welcome that is denied by the flickering light. That the whole thing is contained in a separate room, with a smaller-than-door sized opening through which to look in, means that the viewer is kept outside this experience; attacked by it, but not a part of it.

Richard Forrest and Dan Guiney’s Sculpture comes with the by-now-ubiquitous headphones that play a soundtrack of raw and textured noises. As an aside, one of the nicest things about this exhibition, something that it is admittedly well suited to, is that most of the works are not accompanied by headphones. Instead the noises intermingle and build to create a varied and layered soundscape that brings the show together. It is also somewhat to the detriment of the purely audio works, Dave Fyan’s Climbing the Peacock’s Tail, Robin Parmar’s Apophenic Ecosystem C10 C30, and to a lesser extent Erin Gee’s Voice of an Echo, which mixes visuals and sound. These contribute greatly to the overall noise of the exhibition, but the details get a bit lost in the melee, meaning the specificities of these pieces are hard to talk about. Returning to Sculpture, the headphones in this piece add to its experience. The asymmetrical diamond shaped construction looms large over the rest of the works and changes the phenomenological relationship to the space. This piece encourages the viewer to move around it; it hangs from a chain, suspended, a bright light casts its shadow on the wall behind it and the sleek black gloss paint and silver bolts on its back – which confront the viewer as they enter the exhibition – contrasts with the deteriorated images of faces that are barely determinable in the darkness. The headphones that are attached to the top of the piece mean that the viewer has to be closer to the sculpture than is quite comfortable, we are forced into an intimacy with the piece that brings us into the space that it delineates for itself. Unlike Restless, Sculpture tries to trap us in, a punk aesthetic of shiny black, chains and bolts adds to this effect.

Dominic Thorpe’s Video is another of the sonic elements of the show, a deep and desperate breathing that brings an additional human sound into the electronic tones that underscore the exhibition. This video shows a male figure standing about a foot away from a theatrical spotlight, moving his head in a frantic motion from side to side. The light’s intense brightness means that his image is almost totally effaced when he looks straight into it, as he turns to the side we get a brief glimpse of his features, mainly visible through shadow, creating a stilted imagery reminiscent of looking into a zoetrope. When showing the close up, this is an affecting piece, trails of spit and sweat pour from his face and his exhaustion is palpable in both his failing action and his laboured breath. Less compelling is the shot that is taken from a distance, showing the blandness of the setting; the extension lead for the light and a sad looking radiator form part of the visual landscape. As my companion suggested this does imply a sense that everything sinks into bathos, but I felt that it went someway to undermine the energy, viscerality, and unsettling nature that was so engaging in the close up image.

The standard of works in this show, and their relationship with one another, makes it in its own right an excellent testament to the possibilities of galleries like Tactic, which is a welcome addition to the already thriving scene of small galleries in Cork. What is particularly outstanding about this exhibition, however, is the way that it resonates with the soundart scene, something now well established in the city, and ever growing in administrative and institutional recognition thanks to events like Just Listen, Strange Attractor, and others. The aesthetic of these works plays into an aesthetic of the soundart scene, particularly the Black Sun events. This was particularly noticeable when leaving Tactic to go to Gulp’d in the Triskel for coffee and seeing the various ephemera and documents relating to Black Sun which were curated by its organiser Vicky Langan. Though, to me, the theme of Uncanny Sound resonates more with sound than the uncanny, this is unimportant considering that it is adding to a scene and an aesthetic, based on punk and the best possible kind of angst, that are growing in popularity and recognition in Cork at the moment. That this exhibition was put on now shows a sensitivity and an attention to the artistic and social reverberations that are culturally and geographically specific, something that should be warmly welcomed.

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