‘It sounds like a legend’: Hannah Rickards at Modern Art Oxford

Holly Pester

Reviews / 24.04.2014
Installation view, Hannah Rickards: ‘To enable me to fix my attention on any one of these symbols I was to imagine that I was looking at the colours as I might see them on a moving picture screen.’, Modern Art Oxford, 2014. Photograph: Andy Stagg. All images courtesy the artist and Modern Art Oxford

The trouble with describing sound is that our auditory perception is tuned into the effect of the sound, not the acoustic signal itself. When we describe sound we are interpreting the event of the sound wave – the reverberation of air and surface. To hear is to perceive sound in active production, only as it is going out of existence.1 Therefore our language is in a constant game of catch-up with the sonic event. It is both the effect and the consequence of the sound that we are searching for, so we reach for adequate adjectives – a cracking sound, a rough noise, a deep growl – but arriving at a satisfactory account can be difficult.

Interlocutors of a sonic event or ethereal image quickly find themselves performing a kind of rhetorical magical thinking – figuring experience through transcendental metaphor and dodgy similes.

On the other hand, our image perception relies not on the event but on the object. Light – or electromagnetic radiation activated by a photon – is a constant visible presence. Yet despite the persistence of light as image, its representation in spoken language can be just as illusive as the event of sound. Spectral visions half-glimpsed at – a shooting star that flickers just outside our frame of sight, or the luminous imprint of sun rays on the inside of our eyelid – become quite personal and are only abstracted in our attempts to communicate the sensation. Interlocutors of a sonic event or ethereal image quickly find themselves performing a kind of rhetorical magical thinking – figuring experience through transcendental metaphor and dodgy similes. Take, for example, this description of the apparent sound of the aurora borealis: ‘it sounds like a legend’, which featured in Hannah Rickards’s recent exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. The exhibition, titled ‘To enable me to fix my attention on any one of these symbols I was to imagine that I was looking at the colours as I might see them on a moving picture screen.’,2 played on the discrepancy between comprehensible language and the subjective perception of sonic and atmospheric phenomena. This style of titling, where a fragment of meandering dialogue skirts around a proposition, was applied to most of the works in the show. These instances of re-purposed speech reveal the works’ gesturing towards and around the outside of a statement, where a word like ‘legend’ is one of many that attempt to evoke a subject’s sensory relationship to sound and image.

The exhibition was composed mainly of other people’s voices, formalised in video, audio or text, reaching for a description of an experience of nature through the very insufficient medium of words. Rickards has placed herself directly in William Wordsworth’s bind where the inadequacy of language to do justice to nature is exactly what drives the pursuit:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: ­­–
We murder to dissect.3

How do you bring something as fleeting as a thunderclap, the Northern Lights or a mirage into a gallery frame? And what do you gain from the murderous dissection of natural phenomena? Every work in this show was fixated with capturing encounters with the ‘natural’ world, and a witness’s defaulting capacity to recall the event. Thunder (2005) saw an eight-second field-recording of thunder slowed down, scored for a seven-minute orchestral piece, performed, recorded and recompressed back into an eight-second audio file. At Modern Art Oxford the orchestral thunderclap was installed on a loop with enough delay to catch you off guard every time it clattered, drummed and trembled (see?) its ‘threatening tunes’.4 This early work cohered with the rest of the show on two levels: first to remind us of the detailed level of deconstruction this artist will go to in order to investigate the trace of an event, and secondly to signal the stretching and flattening of time that takes place in these works. The elongation and compression of an instant of thunder is matched by the drawn-out duration the voices in other works on show spend dissecting a brief event, thus exposing the process of translating experience into text.

Hannah Rickards, Some people say they think it sounds like aluminium foil but to me aluminium foil is not the sound., 2014. Installation view, Modern Art Oxford, 2014. Photograph: Andy Stagg

The new work Some people say they think it sounds like aluminium foil but to me aluminium foil is not the sound. (2014) consisted of a large screen-print of text transcribed from someone’s (all the subjects in the show blur into a general witness) description of their experience of hearing the aurora borealis: ‘it’s almost like fine breaking ice… it was so quick, in other words the sounds were so close together.’ The transcribed speech is an attempt to describe sound; ‘it’s it’s it is, it’s like maybe when you hear a whale’. The print was shaded by a green-coloured film on the skylight that gave this section of white gallery space a chlorophyllic glow. In reading the text, also in green print, our eyes became accustomed to the tinted light, so after moving into the next space the gallery light seemed to be pink. The imaginary pink ambience produced by the absence of green created an artificial aurora, a reminder of the capacity for a past event to be manifest in the present. While all colour is the product of neurological interpretation of light on our retinas, the colour pink has a particular relationship with the imaginary in that it doesn’t exist on the visual colour spectrum.5 Therefore the mediation of green-coloured light, its absence and the recorded utterances recounting a noise that may not exist all operate on a shared continuum of optical memory and fantasy.

From this initial prompt the exhibition extended to a series of investigative works that continue a dialectic of experience, description, narrative and memory. The sound that I think it makes is, is that whispering sound, to me it sounds, it almost sounds, um, uh, what’s the word I’m thinking? Um, like historic, not historic, but, um, oh: a legend, it, it sounds like a legend, you know, when you think of a legend or something way back in the past you get that, that, it sounds like that to me, like this legend or somebody’s, this whispering sound: it’s a legend. was a central work in the show, a three-screen installation from 2007 here displayed in a small triangular room installed within the larger exhibition space. Each monitor was positioned in one of the vertexes of the triangle and intermittently flashed red, blue and green (the colours of electrical waveforms that create television images) while audio recordings of a variety of speakers again attempted to define the so-called sound of the aurora. Transcriptions of the recordings, such as ‘electric’, ‘lightsaber’, ‘like-silk’, appeared out of sequence with the audio. The combination of flickering lights, snippets of text and sound played into the enclosed space confined the speakers’ rapture to a staged arrangement of technology and architecture. It is worth mentioning that there is no recorded proof that the aurora borealis produces a noise, only anecdotal evidence contributing to a sort of environmental myth. Therefore the breathless excitement with which the speakers describe their experience is charged with a need to record their version; to bring it forth from memory but also bring it into actuality. Rickards facilitates the conjuring into being of the speakers’ illusions, yet also negates that possibility, deconstructing their descriptions into a spectrum of forms and media.

Hannah Rickards, No, there was no red., 2009. Installation view, Modern Art Oxford, 2014. Photograph: Andy Stagg

No, there was no red. (2009), a twenty-minute split-screen video piece, was installed with the screens at an angle to each other, echoing the prism-shaped space. In this piece middle-aged, US speakers sit in a community centre, and collaboratively recount a vision they jointly witnessed – a mirage of a cityscape seen over the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. (Unlike the aurora sound effects, mirages over large lakes in certain conditions are frequently photographed, and are thus accountable, through the clash of hot and cold air streams channelling light reflected from city façades at an angle to the horizon.) Filmed individually or in pairs, sometimes with one shot playing across the screens, and sometimes with two pieces of footage playing simultaneously on split screens, the speakers’ descriptions of buildings, shopfronts, shapes and textures range from the abstract and sensory to specific discussions of the vista’s lack of depth and colour. The speakers often linger on points of light and on their perception of a horizontal line that organises the shapes of buildings into a composition. At times the scene sounds like a utopia, at others like an amateur watercolour. What is consistent is the group’s pursuit for the common features in each speaker’s story, whilst asserting what was distinct about the way they saw it. The level of cooperation they attempt in describing an image so unsteadily remembered is touching, suggesting the potential in communal utterance.

Caught in the midst of these transliterated events we come to terms with the shortfall of speech in relating an event that exceeds language, while also realising that the excess in verbally represented experience creates a musical noise in itself.6 In both The sound that I think… and No, there was no red, by reaching for a truthful depiction of the image or sound the speakers move quickly through semblances and comparisons, only to defer to alternatives. Objects, substances and sensations are evoked and quickly negated: ‘it’s like silk’, but not, ‘like sand’ or ‘it was like a crackling sound but I won’t say it’s cracking’. Here in-articulation is mobilising rather than hopeless. That speech is irregular and rarely fluent is highlighted in the transcriptions of improvised dialogue, including all the ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’, the clumsy repetitions and tortuous ‘like x and a bit like y but more like z’. To read them feels awkward and broken but when the same text is spoken it sounds natural: the lack in speech is nevertheless productive.

The musicality of loose speech relating an ungraspable moment, and the oddness of its inert score in the form of transcription, are examples of the many chains of translation occurring through this exhibition: light and heat into image, sound into score, speech into text, atmosphere into colour, experience into memory, into narrative. Such routes of translation are underlined by the audio installation, Like sand disappearing or something. (2013), which features British-accented voices re-performing lines of speech from No, there was no red. As one of the most recent works in the show it was interesting that Rickards wanted to revisit the previous work, and continue to mine it for information. While this piece has an added staged quality, its awkwardness feeds into the exhibition’s thesis on the potential for the remediation of a singular occurrence.

In the prism installation of voices lamenting the lost sound of the aurora borealis, a woman’s voice utters, “if you heard it, it’s here… it’s mine!”

What this newer installation brought in relation to the other two multi-voiced works was an added question of agency and ownership over the experiences. The Lake Michigan mirage is described in terms of the significance of each individual’s vision in contrast to the commonly agreed aspects of depth, definition and shape: ‘for me there was no red’. Many of the speakers seem to desire a unique relationship with the event, or at least a unique access to a mode of description that clinches what it was actually like. In the prism installation of voices lamenting the lost sound of the aurora borealis, a woman’s voice utters, ‘if you heard it, it’s here… it’s mine!’ This wonderful claim over the sound by way of having heard it is complicated by Rickards’s repossession of the experience. This absorption of singular voices suggests that there is a kind of economy of information harvested by the exhibition. Another says, ‘That’s about as close as I can come, so if that's going to help you at all’, and it dawns on you that all the descriptions are an offering to the artist that she has then appropriated. This prompts the question of what is a shared perception: are these collated stories collective or solitary experiences, and do Rickards’s iterations make them more or less so?

If metaphor is the carrying-over of meaning from one form to another, then this exhibition features a constellation of extended metaphors. Rickards’s work replaces objects, sounds, forms and experiences with looser, abstract versions of the ‘original’, generating meaning from what was replaced. In the same way that the absence of green light can give way to an experience of pink (therefore revealing significance about the colour green), the sound of thunder is replaced by the sound of an orchestra, producing an analysis of thunder in its absence. In the verbally centred works, spatial metaphors (angles and light) are used to carry over information from the reiterations. Rickards locates the point in each testimony that can be linked to a physical representation of the natural phenomena, and shows us that the failure to accurately reanimate a subjective memory is far from futile.

  1. Walter J. Ong, ‘World as View and World as Event’, American Anthropologist, vol.71, 1969, pp.634–47.

  2. ‘To enable me to fix my attention on any one of these symbols I was to imagine that I was looking at the colours as I might see them on a moving picture screen.’, Modern Art Oxford, 15 February – 21 April 2013

  3. William Wordsworth, ‘The Tables Turned’, quoted in Edward Picot, Outcasts from Eden: Ideas of Landscape in British Poetry Since 1945, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997, p.34.

  4. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Thunderstorm’, The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, p.104.

  5. Sandrine Ceurstemont, ‘One Minute Physics: Why there is no pink light’, New Scientist TV, NewScientist [website], 17 October 2011. See http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/nstv/2011/10/one-minute-physics-why-there-is-no-pink-light.html

  6. ‘…voice is for man the paradigm of all sound, and to it all sound tends to be assimilated. We hear the voice of the sea, the voice of thunder, the voice of the wind, and an engine’s cough.’, W.J. Ong, ‘World as View and World as Event’, op. cit., p.638.