Soundscapes at the National Gallery | Exhibition review

The need to express oneself is as old as time. Before mankind acquired verbal communication skills, people would already seek ways to convey messages or to leave testimonies of their passage. And even then, men would naturally be influenced by their surroundings, as simple as they were.

Linking arts is therefore not such a novelty. Even when they specialise in a certain field, artists more than often will cross genres and mediums to create their works. What is innovative about Soundscapes, however, is the approach with which it was conceived.

The National Gallery asked six recording artists to each select a painting from its collection and provide a soundtrack to it. Whereas nowadays this is a common feature in cinematic productions, it is interesting to witness the results of the same method as applied to non-moving images. Especially considering that interactive events have become so popular, this exhibition is another attempt to get visitors involved and benefit from a multi-sensorial experience.

Soundscapes is devised so as to guide visitors from one room to the other, through a path which should stimulate and increase their sensitivity and concentration. Every space is dedicated to a single canvas, all walls are pitch black, at times including the floor, and speakers are positioned around the area according to the artists’ instructions.

From a technical point of view, however, the exhibition fails to achieve its main goal. Since allowing people to enter each room individually is perhaps impossible, at least without restraining the visiting experience to a given time frame, the curators may have thought of giving out headphones instead, so that everyone could share the space while making it more intimate.

In spite of the effort made by separating the paintings by sound-isolating corridors, voices, steps and whatever sound we produce still naturally impairs a total communion with the pictures and the musical scores that have been purposely crafted to match them. Evaluating the effectiveness of these commissioned installations is not so useful – some may turn out to be more evocative than others but that is only up to visitors to decide, as it is very subjective.

Its real aim being to encourage visitors to keep this same approach next time they look at a painting, Soundscapes definitely provides the grounds to instil this curiosity, awaken imagination and promote a deeper connection with art. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite make it happen. Seeing some people leaving rooms after approximately five seconds is enough reason to believe they didn’t even give it a try.

Verdict: •••

Soundscapes is on until 6th September 2015 at the National Gallery, for further information visit here

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