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Take a Breath and See What Art Can Do

The New Media Gallery examines the very human act of breathing. Literally inspiring!

Dorothy Woodend 9 Jul 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

After coming into existence from the process of photosynthesis, a single molecule of oxygen can take up to six million years to finally wink out. Different processes can remove oxygen from the air, including chemical reactions like fire and even plain old breathing. But even as plants are pumping new molecules of oxygen into the atmosphere, the older stuff is slowly fading away.

While the atmosphere has shifted a few times over since dinosaurs were wandering about, it’s possible that some atoms of oxygen are the same as those respired by a diplodocus or a brontosaurus some 65 million years ago.

Breathe that in, if you will.

The long view, as well as the granular particulars, of respiration are the focus of a new exhibition at the New Media Gallery in New Westminster.

PneumoMachinic, composed of three different works, takes a while to limn into your system. It is a subtle, even stealthy intervention. The experience comes in at odd, oblique angles, sidling up when you’re busily looking at the component parts of different artworks, the cables, wires, video installations.

Then, suddenly the immensity of time, space and scale hits you upside the head.

The profundity of even the most basic elements is plucked from the air and rendered anew. That’s what art can do.

In all honesty, I hadn’t given much thought to how oxygen is created, destroyed and implemented since elementary school. But its relevance is a key part of PneumoMachinic, beginning with El eterno retorno (The Eternal Return).

Peruvian artist Cristhian Ávila Cipriani bridges time, space and cultural distance through the twinned relationship between breath and sound.

At first glance, Cipriani’s installation resembles something from a David Cronenberg film, a central mass of wires, machinery and cables, snaking out to a ring of bone-coloured ceramic objects.

There is a surgical, as well as a liturgical, aspect to the work. Some of these objects are immediately familiar: clay whistles, simple bone pipes. But others are stranger, taking the form of amorphous animal shapes as well as Nazca and Chimu Antaras (pan pipes).

In El eterno retorno (The Eternal Return), Cristhian Ávila Cipriani’s award-winning work of art explores the relationship between breath and sound. Video courtesy of the artist on Vimeo.

At different intervals, each instrument emits a sound, a whistling shriek, akin to a tea kettle on hard boil, or a more subtle intonation, like the moan of the wind. Which is not unexpected, given that each pipe is fuelled the motion of the air, captured in a specially built windmill, installed atop the Museo de Arte de Lima in Peru’s capital city.

The meteorological conditions in Lima are then fed into computers at the New Media Gallery, and this information determines the pattern of sounds that emerge in the work itself.

A quality of the processional attends The Eternal Return, as one moves around the different instruments, trying to discern where exactly the sounds are coming from. The experience reminded me of attending a recent university convocation ceremony, where a bagpiper led the procession of capped and gowned academics to the stage.

The sound of the pipes, in tandem with the solemnity of the rite, made some ancient epigenetic memory leapt to life. Music, inextricably bound up with ceremony, has a way of bridging the past and the present.

The process of merging the ancient and the immediate was something of a complex undertaking, requiring the artist to gain permission to use the pre-Hispanic instruments. The ancient flutes were scanned, and the resulting tomographic images were 3D printed to create ceramic copies.

The bone colour makes them seem like ghosts of their originals, which in some fashion is what they are.

A cream-coloured piece of medium-sized piece of sculptural artwork sits on a white tabletop in a gallery space. The left of the object resembles the head of a sea creature, and its tail is attached to a clear tube. Behind it is more tubing and scientific objects on a black tabletop.
In Cristhian Ávila Cipriani’s El eterno retorno (The Eternal Return), there is a surgical, as well as a liturgical, aspect to the work. Photo via Kathy Datsky Photography.

The central installation is supported by other components, including a video screen that captures what is happening in the public square in front of the MALI gallery in Lima.

While I was watching a pair of little kids scampered into view, chasing each other across the esplanade of the gallery. Even from thousands of kilometres away, their interaction was as clear as a bell. There is something of this same immediacy in El eterno retorno.

Described as a “musical, interactive and incidental installation” by the artist himself, the work is both direct and circuitous, old and instantaneous, carefully crafted and yet seemingly random.

Heraclitus’s famous dictum that you can never step in the same river twice comes immediately to mind, as does Zeno’s paradoxes. It’s a curious convergence of different elements, all acting in concert; a coming together of seemingly oppositional things that somehow create music.

Orchestral in the greatest sense of the word.

A delicate gold structure with four spindly legs holds a small grey contraption that resembles the bellows of an accordion. It stands on a grey floor in an indoor gallery space.
Xoán-Xil’s Organismo is both organic and technological, odd but strangely sweet. Photo via Rachel Topham Photography.

A room of ‘automata,’ and the techno-animal interface

A similar mixture of delight and divergence, of different qualities merging into a greater whole, is embodied in Xoán-Xil’s Organismo (Organscape).

At first glance, the horde of mechanical creatures that comprise the work resembles a combination of birds, insects or small dinosaurs. With their spindly metal legs and squeeze-box bodies that look like innards of an accordion (or, in the case of one individual, a small black balloon that functions like a bladder), they’re both organic and technological, odd but strangely sweet.

These automata, as they’re called, are grouped in random patterns and snaked ‘round with cables. They’re lit dramatically so that their spidery shadows take up space on the gallery walls.

The collected group pipes up the moment someone enters the gallery. The cacophony of different honks, squeaks, even a blowing-a-raspberry noise, such as a child would create by pressing their tongue between their lips, creates an off-key orchestra of alarm.

This combined response is part threat, part panic, but there is something strangely vulnerable about their noise. Think of the adorable hisses and squeaks of a small kitten.

The more you walk around, taking care not to step directly on any of the little guys, the louder and more agitated the sounds become.

But if you pick a spot and remain perfectly still for a while, the assembled host fall silent. It’s not unlike sitting at the edge of a pond, waiting for the bugs, frogs and birds to forget you are there and go back to their usual business.

Commissioned by the festival De Lugares e Órganos, the original installation incorporated two different elements, the automata creatures themselves, as well, a score created for traditional pipe organs that included sounds derived from the natural world.

The tradition of collecting and employing natural sounds like birdsong, rain and wind dates to the Baroque period, when pipe organs incorporated these elements into special registers.

As the artist explains in his description of the work, “It is not so much an attempt to achieve a faithful imitation, but to outline certain acoustic characteristics of the evoked material, the wind, bird or a swarm, for example. Creating a tension that places us between utopia and dystopia.”

An additional layer added to mechanical noise creatures and organ composition takes inspiration from the work of French Surrealist poet Guillaume Appollinaire.

The specific work referenced is Appollinaire’s novella The Poet Assassinated, wherein King Luis II of Bavaria plays a strange organ to summon all the world’s noise ephemera.

To wit:

“The whistling of the geysers when the boiling augas erupt […], terrible noises from the street, trams, factories […], elephants sweep. One o´clock at night! This is India! Then Tibet. You can hear the priestly bells ringing […] Dum, Dum, boom, dum dum, boom, boom, dum, dum, boom, it’s Beijing, the gongs and the round drums, the innumerable dogs that shout or bark mixing their voices with the lugubrious sound of the night watchers. The crowing of a rooster bursts and announces the dawn.”

Listen closely to the bellows and pulley systems of the automata in Organismo (Organscape).

From what seems at first a chorus of chaos, something altogether different emerges. It is a collective community, acting in concert.

A bright red curvy structure resembles a small microphone lying horizontally on a stand against a grey wall.
Ali Miharbi’s Whisperings I consists of acoustic resonators inspired by the shape of human throat and vocal chords. Photo via Rachel Topham Photography.

Turkish artist Ali Miharbi’s Whisperings I is composed of 10 acoustic resonators that take their shape from the human throat and vocal cords. The installation looks like a forest of mics, each capped off with small lid that opens and closes to emit sounds.

The noises released do not really sound like words, and that’s because they’re not. They’re more intimate, along the lines of an exhalation or an expulsion of breath. The sounds “Ahh, ohh, uhhh” are like the noises that people make when they’re in the throes of sexual passion or perhaps serious injury. Hopefully not both.

As the description of the work explains, these sounds constitute some of the earliest components of human speech. The vowels A, E, I, O and U are the building blocks of language, and maybe because of this, there is a strangely emotional aspect to the work.

Sounds that operate at a pre-verbal level, a place before language could parse and structure reality into defined blocks of experience, have a way of circumventing the intellect.

Time spent listening to the soft exhalation and ‘proto-language’ reduces one to a kind of elemental state.

A place of breathing in and out, simply existing.

It's a not a bad place to be.

‘PneumoMachinic’ is on view at the New Media Gallery until Aug. 18.  [Tyee]

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