Art Seen: International

ANRI SALA // THE PRESENT MOMENT

by Vanessa Gravenor

Anri Sala’s The Present Moment, currently on view at the Haus der Kunst Munich, re-performs and dissects a late Romantic composition by Arnold Schoenberg in a 19-channel sound system, and a single channel video projection. “Transfigured Night,” a sextet composed as chamber music, was composed for an intimate setting. Taken out of this context, re-presented in the large fascist architecture of the Haus der Kunst, there is an immediate tension at play, bordering on negation. In a panel discussion, Sala describes that the chamber music is supposed to be conversational—it is without a conductor. This absence immediately opposes the room that the piece is installed in, which in its original architectural form was a site for speeches by Hitler. Within The Present Moment, there is this constant mixing of orders—the flat hierarchy of the conversational sound that addresses and destabilizes the fascist hierarchy that still commands space. In many ways, Sala’s work engages in a post-counter-revolutionary action that is contra time, contra space.

Anri Sala, The Present Moment, 2014 (in D), Installation view Haus der Kunst, Courtesy of Haus der Kunst and Jens Weber, München

Anri Sala, The Present Moment, 2014 (in D), Installation view Haus der Kunst, Courtesy of Haus der Kunst and Jens Weber, München

In the same panel discussion, which took place at the museum in November of 2014, Sala explains how an earlier piece Long Sorrow began his investigation into architecture as origin for music and sound. Long Sorrow, a piece I was able to view through a DVD copy contained within a collection of essays by Michael Fried, deals with an architectural complex near the former Berlin wall in what once was East Germany. The architectural complex is drab, similar to other Soviet housing units that stand anachronistically against a landscape that reflects a Western capitalist turn.

ANRI SALA, Long Sorrow, 2005, High definition video transferred from super-16; colour, sound, 12 minutes 57 seconds, Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Anri Sala

ANRI SALA, Long Sorrow, 2005, High definition video transferred from super-16; colour, sound, 12 minutes 57 seconds, Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Anri Sala

The piece begins with the camera positioned on the inside of the apartment, and then approaches Moondoc, a famous jazz musician, who is dangled precariously outside of the eighteen-story apartment complex. Moondoc improvises in a void: the void of history, the void of his present moment, and like Michael Fried mentions in his essay, Presentness: Anri Sala, appears to be like Orpheus resurrecting a Eurydice through sound.

The installation is founded heavily on the structural composition of Schoenberg’s 12-tonal scales. Whereas in Schoenberg’s construction, where all tones were supposed to be played in an equal succession to trigger the next progression of tones, within Sala’s installation, these recorded tones technologically descend into the space and physically disperse. The original composition is heard at the front space—for Sala, there are no images at the beginning of the piece, but rather a flooding of frequencies that echo across the central space of the building from speakers installed in an arch on the ceiling. Over time, the sound leads the viewer to circumvent the ground in a non-linear pattern. When the sound ends, a projection appears at the back of the hall. This screen presents a documented performance of the Munich Chamber Orchestra performing Schoenberg’s string sextet, conforming to meticulous tight close-ups of the performers’ elbows, hands, faces, and necks—a state of contortion and labor. Because the moment when music is created cannot be found in the image, there is a similar slippage of origins that Sala traces here, an almost “autistic” state of the original composition.

 ANRI SALA, Long Sorrow, 2005, High definition video transferred from super-16; colour, sound, 12 minutes 57 seconds, Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Anri Sala


ANRI SALA, Long Sorrow, 2005, High definition video transferred from super-16; colour, sound, 12 minutes 57 seconds, Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery © Anri Sala

Playing in D-flat, the performers must anticipate the others’ tones in order to keep with Schoenberg’s strict 12-tone logic. Within this preset, there is a constant state of anticipation, relaying, and lag time. Very similar to Moondoc in Long Sorrow, the performers are “stuck” within this virtual suspension. Sala describes this process as a “limbo of reoccurring gestures.” This same limbo is echoed in the filming method that is absent of panning, tracking, and zooms. Sala’s aesthetic is instead austere and anemic.

For the viewer, this limbo can also be defined as the frustration in never seeing the full scene, the full picture. In this work “to see” is more of an amalgamation of hearing that correlates to cerebral understanding. Even hearing is not a given; the viewer must remember necessary information in order to make sense of the patterns of sound.

The Present Moment, 2014 (in D) Single-channel HD Video and 19 channel sound installation 21'30" Courtesy: Galerie Chantal Crousel,Paris; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Hauser & Wirth © Anri Sala

The Present Moment, 2014 (in D) Single-channel HD Video and 19 channel sound installation 21’30” Courtesy: Galerie Chantal Crousel,Paris; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Hauser & Wirth © Anri Sala

The Present Moment, 2014 (in D) Single-channel HD Video and 19 channel sound installation 21'30" Courtesy: Galerie Chantal Crousel,Paris; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Hauser & Wirth © Anri Sala 

The Present Moment, 2014 (in D) Single-channel HD Video and 19 channel sound installation 21’30” Courtesy: Galerie Chantal Crousel,Paris; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Hauser & Wirth © Anri Sala

The exhibition recalls another architectural site; Dachau, just outside of Munich, a model labor camp that operated during the Third Reich. The similarly fascist affect, meant to sublimate prisoners and disorient the senses relates to both sites—Dachau, now a site of memory meant to educate, and Sala’s The Present Moment, also piece for memory. In Dachau, the site’s traumatic pasts are meant to be experienced either didactically or intuitively. However, even though the onlooker is in a historical site, present among the specters, the full trauma of the site can still not be comprehended. There is a gap that the onlooker feels, separating their current experience from the gravitas of history.

Many philosophers from Arendt, Primo Levi, to Giorgio Agamben have criticized the designation that the Holocaust is an unspeakable and incomprehensible event, because it relegates these histories to the sacred, the worshipped. In Judith Bulter’s writing on Bracha Ettinger’s Eurydice, she says that to look directly upon trauma pushes the object of mediation away further into darkness into a permanent state of loss. Faced with the obstacles of a space with traumatic origin, and yet not desiring to relegate the history of architecture to the sacred, Sala invites us into a “looking” that is not seeing—a gazing that does not turn back upon history, but instead discerns its patterns of power. This bridge is one of opposition, one of conversation, and one that signals a flowing of dissimilar returns.



The Present Moment is on view at the Haus der Kunst Munich through September 2015.

Vanessa Gravenor is a writer and artist living between Chicago and Berlin.

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