Museums are no strangers to silence; in fact, like clockwork, a hush enshrouds the institutions from the entrance, allowing for a viewer's maximum meditation, contemplation and focus. Such a ritual depicts the power of silence, so often underestimated as solely an absence of sound. In a new exhibition titled "Silence," theMenil Collection explores the force, the symbolism and the speed of the concept in a thoughtful new exhibition.
A core piece of the show is John Cage's "4'33," considered one of the most avant-garde expressions of the form. For the composition, which debuted in 1952, the Cage had his orchestra hold their instruments for the duration of the three movements, playing nothing. Yet instead of hearing the absence of sound, the audience gained heightened awareness of their surroundings -- the ambient buzz of electricity, the occasional crash of a mic or echo of a footstep. The piece revealed how the white noise often deferred to as silence is anything but. Cage has cited Robert Rauschenberg's "White Painting" as an inspiration for the composition. Rauschenberg's work, also featured in the exhibition, lives up to the title. Yet rather than appear as empty or blank, the white canvas invites attention to the texture, the shadows and the whispers of paint in a way louder paintings do not.
The comparison between Cage and Rauschenberg illuminates a question central to the exposition: can silence be translated from sound to the sight? What does silence look like? "Silence" offers answers from some of art history's most experimental characters, from Rene Magritte to Andy Warhol. Warhol's "Big Electric Chair" depicts an empty killing machine in a decorative fuchsia hue. In this way, silence is felt in the emptiness of the room, the looming awareness of death and the preciousness of the final moments leading up to it. The image becomes more of a symbol than a specific representation, printed in the same Pop-aesthetic as Warhol's Marilyns. The serial sensation is even more apparent with his "Lavender Disaster," in which the electric chair images are mass produced and lined up, showing the emptiness that even an event as momentous as death can reach with enough repetition. Eventually, when the electric chair becomes ritualized, its horror becomes as banal as background noise.
In turn, Tehching Hsieh's "One Year Performance" gives a more literal interpretation of silence, when the artist locked himself in a wooden cage for an entire year. Throughout the performance Hsieh did not speak, read, write or watch television. A photo a day documents the event, as Hsieh becomes increasingly ghostlike -- losing himself through the process.
The exhibition also contains work by contemporary artists such as Jennie C. Jones, whose work addresses the possible links between silence in music, minimalism in art and absence in history. Particularly concerned with African American absence in the burgeoning of modernism, Jones toys with the distance between understanding silence as lack and as force. Her humble works, in which image mimics sound and vice versa, gesture back to an era where silence was appreciated and available, in contrast to today's digital overloaded age.
Rather than a lack, silence is a rare commodity, and the museum is one of the rare places where it can be readily found. How does silence affect the museum experience? How does it interact with time and space, with reflection and revelry? "Silence" allows each viewer to delve into the question individually, giving special consideration to the Rothko Chapel and Renzo Piano's Menil Collection building, both designed with silence in mind.
"Silence" will show at the Menil Collection in Houston from July 27–October 21, 2012. It features work from Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, David Hammons, Tehching Hsieh, Jennie C. Jones, Jacob Kirkegaard, René Magritte, Mark Manders, Christian Marclay, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Max Neuhaus, Robert Rauschenberg, Doris Salcedo, Tino Sehgal, and others.
See a slideshow of the work below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section: