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Following the crane's cry

img  Tobias Fischer
article image

Irony and intellectual abstractions are typical domains of the contemporary art scene. They were never, however, the domain of Rolf Julius. When, just a year before his death in Berlin 2011, the artist titled an album of early compositions Music for the Ears, he wasn't playing with words. As he once admitted with a laugh to The Wire's David Keenan in a late interview, his sense of hearing and sight were so closely intertwined with him, that he frequently confused them. And yet, from this synaesthetic perspective, he built an oeuvre that was inclusive rather than elitist and which sought to build bridges between his perceptive idiosyncracries and his audience's expectations. His aesthetic ideal, as he once described it, was the Japanese garden, a space entirely aimed at contemplation and tranquility: "When I went to a garden in Okayama, a crane landed and suddenly gave a loud cry. I was surprised that a sound like that could exist. And then the silence afterwards: In complete harmony in the space. Then I understood the beauty of Japanese gardens." Guided by that understanding, he would soon be building his own.

Sounding habitats
The harmony and beauty of that experience live on in Julius's compositions, selected highlights of which are currently being released as part of a nine-part series on the Western Vinyl label. And one can still sense the crane's cry in Lautlos, a current juxtaposition of Julius's work with a selection of sculptures by Swedish artist Nina Canell, at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof. A playful sense of engagement and discovery is vital to all of his pieces, which are never just audio installations to be passively consumed, but always sounding habitats to be explored. And so, upon entering, the first thing you notice is people quietly shifting positions within his "Vierteilige Klanginstallation" ("Sound installation in four parts"), walking from one of its sound sources to the next, then bending down, crouching or sitting in front of tiny speaker cones carefully placed on top of rusty iron plates, hidden inside two crumpled paper bags or drifting in two small cups filled with colored water. Some of the visitors are moving back and forth between parts, trying to take in the ensemble as a whole. Others are staying at one place for minutes, almost sinking their nose into the bags in a bid of appreciating every single nuance of these subtle (or, as Julius would put it, 'small') sounds. This looks nothing like 'serious' art lovers looking for cranial stimulation. It looks like a group of kindergarten-kids having fun on a playground for the senses.

What you notice, however, once you've entered the piece yourself – which simply means coming within hearing distance – is that this naive and charming outer appearance is slightly misleading. The noises, field recordings and delicate sounds emanating from the miniature speakers may be discrete, but they're anything but soothing drones or a friendly background hum. Instead, there is both a consoling and a slightly discomfiting feeling to them, as if one were listening at forbidden doors. The massive iron plate in the middle, which acts as a sort of gravitational centre of the entire installation, in particular, is radiating otherworldly rhythmic movements, as if someone were tapping into its heartbeat with a stethoscope. Frogs seem to be croaking in the distance. High-pitched sine waves are lingering in the air like a faint fog. And as you move around the "Vierteilige Klanginstallation", you can not only sense energy points, at which different sound sources are converging, but also clearly detect the outer borders of the piece. Intriguingly, they're delineated not so much by the arrangement of the materials on the floor, but even more by its sounds. In sync with Julius's idea of sight and hearing converging, sounds are working like spatial factors here, while the physical objects, conversely, appear to be transmitting auditory signals. Time and space have become part of a continuum bypassing these dimensions, questioning their absoluteness and yet awarding them a new meaning all at once. 

Making the invisible visible
Julius once claimed that he was interested in nothing, but had to show something to make the invisible visible. What lies behind the curtain escapes the grasp of human language, which is why, as soon as you've truly connected with his oeuvre, it no longer matters whether or not you can actually put it it into words or not. And yet, although his pieces have been compared to Chinese landscape painting, they're always deeply personal expressions as well. This is most apparent in what is arguably the most impressive piece of the entire exhibit, "Backstage". Placed on a 60cm high and four by four meter big wooden platform, are a staggering three hundred objects from his studio: Cups filled with water, cups filled with pigments, grinders, stones, ceramic bowls and lamps. Concrete and abstract noises are coming at the spectator from all directions, yet, upon closer inspection, their location can be precisely placed. Walking around the platform and observing the wave-like shifting of sonic constellations feels a lot like composing in real-time and there can be no doubt that, to Julius, his sculptures were attempts at creating a more satisfying, rich and organic music than the one documented by the stave system of the Western tradition.

He wasn't being metaphoric. To Julius, these intense yellow, red and black pigments really were producing sounds – and through his work, he offered his audience the chance of developing the sensibility to hear them as well. It might sound frightening invading someone else's headspace like that, but the effect of this approach is anything but. Quite on the contrary, the deeper you immerse yourself into his music, the more it reveals its beauty, radiating an inexplicable calm and quietude. When we leave the exhibition, we can see visitors sitting on benches in the hallway, listening to Music for the Ears on headphones. They're all smiling.

By Tobias Fischer

Lautlos is on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, until the 21st of April.

Photo Credit: Installationsansicht Hamburger Bahnhof; © estate rolf julius, Foto: Roman März

Homepage: Hamburger Bahnhof
Homepage: Western Vinyl Records