Anri Sala: Answer Me (a belated exhibition review)



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Anri Sala, Ravel Ravel, 2013; Two-channel HD video in color and sixteen-channel sound installation; 20:45 min.; exhibition image, courtesy of the author

In a world where there are literally (actually, literally!) hundreds of ways to be in communication with someone, I feel like I am constantly listening to complaints about people not answering. Texts, facebook, skype, phone calls, email…the list goes on and on and people still feel ignored or out of the loop (#fomo). And yet, we know that most people always have their phones, almost always have service and/or wifi and thus should ALWAYS answer. We (myself included) expect immediate responses to all of our messages. Hence the eternal cry of “ANSWER ME!” especially aimed at those friends who are constantly on their phones (even when hanging out with us one on one) but never seem to answer in a timely manner. Or, those who are answering promptly up until a certain point when (and with no warning, to boot) they suddenly stop. Not to mention when you get an answer that isn’t really an answer (what does “k” really mean after all, and since when is it an appropriate response to anything?)…it’s too much. I myself had to delete Facebook messenger from my phone because constantly being plagued by (or anxious about the lack of) separate beeps for messenger, texts, email, and whatsapp, alongside good old fashioned phone calls (not to mention various dating apps), my anxiety level rose to uncontrollable heights and I had to get rid of something. It’s for this reason alone that my phone is eternally on silent (not even vibrate) and I always miss calls and often (unless I’m obsessing or carrying on a legitimate conversation) answer texts or emails hours after receiving them. Is it possible that since there are now so many ways to be present when you are absent that, in a desperate fear of losing the possibility of true absence, we actually become more absent because of our excessive connectedness? Anri Sala’s exhibition at the New Museum, which includes a moderately curated group of installations and videos, would seem to touch on this idea in a pleasingly (and at the same time mildly disturbingly) roundabout and often off-center way.

Many of the exhibition reviews that I read before finally going to see the exhibition spoke about the echo motif present throughout the show and in much of his work. A note, a rhythm, or a song is played and answers itself seconds later. This is first found in a mesmerizing pair of videos titled Ravel Ravel, where a pianist is recorded playing a song at two different times, the two recordings projected simultaneously on two screens. The song is the same in both videos and the performer is the same, but given the impossibility of two actions being perfectly identical, each video is slightly different…slightly out of sync. They are played right next to each other in a massive, soundproofed room on monumental screens. The largeness of the setting should clash with the close-up on the piano and pianist’s hands and torso, but instead the dichotomy is fitting when paired with the difference between the songs. The timing and rhythm are offset to such a slight degree that they would appear to be echoing each other, but the echo is not consistent and the separate recordings interweave gently, repeatedly exchanging which one produces the initial sound and which one echoes it. It is at once hypnotic and maddening…I also got the distinct (though currently unsupported) sense that one of the videos was created with the assistance of a metronome while the other was played by the score alone. This brought to my mind questions of authenticity, repetition, technology, as well as the difference between practice and performance. Having once been a dancer, a singer, and an instrumentalist (I was all over the place in high school), I am well acquainted with the repetition inherent in practice and the drive for perfection that is never quit reached (although hoped for at least in the formal performance).

Around a corner, another video shows a DJ focused deeply on two turntables in the installation Unravel. Each album plays the same recording but at a slightly different speed. The DJ is concentrating on keeping them at the same speed with slight touches of her hands. Much like the piano video, the records appear to faintly echo each other but the order of sounds constantly and gently flip-flops due to the intervention of the DJ. While this brought up similar questions, it caused me to focus more on the ideas of technology, performance, and authenticity. I found myself thinking about human intervention: a human created the sound that was recorded, the technology that recorded the sounds, the vinyl that they were recorded on, and the turn table that they were being played anew on. Now, another human was intervening on all of this technology meant to replicate or replace the original orchestra to “correct” a minor technical error (that was actually not an error but a slight, purposeful change). What does this mean for the sound, for the objects, for the recording, for the DJ? Where does the organic noise end and the mechanical noise begin? I was further struck by the fragility of these systems, of the sound, and of that blurry grey line that separates enjoyable music from annoying noise.

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Anri Sala, Unravel, 2013; Single-channel HD video in color and discrete 4.0 surround sound installation; 20:45 min.; exhibition image, courtesy of the author

Then, yet another dichotomy, I began to think about the difference between the classical and the modern. The music recorded was classical instrumental music, surely the musicians performed it live at some point (presumably dressed formally and in front of an audience) and this record was meant to replicate that. But, the DJ was casually dressed and performing as a DJ is a distinctly modern musical genre. Not only was there the performance of the musicians, but I was also conspicuously aware of the performance of the viewer. Going to a concert is just as much a performance as playing in one; you dress up, meet friends, sit, listen, play the culturally attentive spectator (attending a museum exhibition is performative in a similar way). A record releases the viewer from his or her performance, allowing them to enjoy the same music in private and comfort. Then, of course, I began thinking about the fact that not only was the original performance recorded, but the DJ’s performance was recorded in the video…there were levels of technology and recording echoing each other throughout the film. Layers, too, of dated technology and methods from classic vs modern music to antiquated vs current recording methods.

In fact, oppositions and dichotomies were as much themes in this show as technology, repetition, authenticity, human intervention, and fragmentation. Every theme that was brought up was paired alongside its opposite. I even kept a list of themes throughout the show as I walked through the exhibition and the entire thing became an A) vs B) list: human vs mechanical, classic vs modern, classicism vs abstraction, physicality of playing and conducting vs the stillness of the DJ, her aloneness as a performer vs an orchestra as a group, physically present audience vs film viewers (absent audience for her, physically absent performer for the viewer), fragmentation vs focus, organic vs mechanical noises. Further, the fragmentation of each action into its separate actions, visions, and sounds makes you, the viewer, conscious of the physical act of doing a thing (which often, when professionalized, becomes a single act of muscle memory and thought…if you are doing it well, you should make it look easy). The focus of the many videos and installations was to break them down into their components in an act very similar to learning and practicing, so much so that it takes away the meaning associated with it traditionally, leaving it first with no meaning, then creating a new and different meaning that changes over time and from viewer to viewer.

This fragmentation also brings up the interesting (and oft talked about) issues of technology and the separation and breaking down of the human desire to be heard, understood, and answered. And thus I come back to my opening point. “Answer Me” is a show where you feel compelled to sit on one of the many benches offered along the walls and linger, but then eventually feel disturbed and are overcome with the need to move on…the levels became too intricate and the lack of meaning and pressure to create meaning too heavy. There is also a dark humor mixed with the disturbing elements of known things being slowed down and broken up or segmented until they are no longer known. It forces you to feel the disturbing quality of the unknown, or the disturbing nature of something known but slightly altered so that it is “wrong” – the horror and the anxiety of something being just slightly off: off rhythm, too slow, too fast, segmented, missing something. It is a show to be returned to and seen again and again where the act of viewing can be repeated in the same fragmented manner where each understanding is both the same, and slightly different and it is unclear whether the difference is an evolution, regression, or just a lateral shift.

While this may not have been the point of the artwork or the show, I can’t help seeing it in relation to modern methods of communication. Speaking to someone through text or WeChat, holding a thread of conversation over a Facebook post, and the staccato, too fast forward motion of a group text message are incredibly fragmented ways of communicating with people. Conversations are broken up, things get repeated or overlooked, sometimes there is an echo in the conversation when a message is received just as a similar message is sent. Or, as so often happens, the other person just disappears for a while (or forever…Tinder). The separation is anxiety inducing, frustrating, and sometimes humorous; for example, auto-correct has gotten so ridiculous it has become a meme. The lack of tone and continuity leads to a loss of meaning and, often, a creation of new meaning. All of this can lead to you feeling separate and maybe a little insane. On a related side-note, while we were watching one of the videos, my friend requested that we move on because she was starting to feel crazy. In modern society we are not always blessed with continuity, closure, or a fulfillment of how we think things “should be.” “Anri Sala: Answer Me” is a shout into the void: an artist shouting to his unseen audience, an individual shouting to the absent second party who is somewhere else in time and/or space. While the show provides no answers, it forces the viewer to feel disconcerted enough to begin questioning what they are seeing compared to what they expected to see, or hear. Sometimes a shout can only be answered by its own echo.


Anri Sala: Answer Me

2/3/16 – 4/10/16

The New Museum

235 Bowery

New York, NY


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