Sounds, and Sights, of ‘Silence’


ISSUE Magazine: November 2012 | Review by Andy Coughlan

How does one review a concept? It is easy to refer to the artworks in an exhibition, to point out the individual characteristics that make the piece what it is. But in the case of “Silence,” at the Menil Collection through Oct. 21, the parts only matter in relation to the whole — the concept.

To start with, the exhibition itself is not silent. Several of the pieces are quite noisy indeed. Kurt Mueller’s “Cenotaph” consists of a Rock-Ola jukebox with a collection of 100 moments of silence observed in various settings. Each comes with its introduction, be it congressman, siren or, in one case, the roar of NASCAR engines. The gaudy colors of the jukebox seem to contradict the solemnity of the content to challenge our perception of the nature of the memorial.

Jacob Kirkegaard, AION, 2006, Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Jacob Kirkegaard

In recent years, English soccer, in response to unruly elements in the crowds, has taken to holding a minute of applause to honor former players who have died instead of the traditional moment of silence. It is easy to bemoan the lack of respect among the hooligan minority, but there is a bigger issue here. For most people, silence is an uncomfortable thing. After a relatively short time — and a minute, in such circumstances, is an exceptionally long time — even the most respectful begin to shift and fidget. We live in times where we are bombarded by stimuli and are uncomfortable when we abandon, or are abandoned by it.

It is the nature of things that, as time passes, the meaning of things change. Marcel Duchamp’s “With Hidden Noise” is an assisted readymade featuring a ball of twine held between two plates. Inside the twine is an unknown object that rattles when the piece is shaken. As we do not know what creates the rattle, we are reminded of the mystery of the creative process. Of course, being a valuable work by a great artist, we are not allowed to shake it. The prohibition adds an extra layer of mystery. What does it sound like? If we cannot hear it, how can we relate to the original intention?

Several of the conceptual pieces, which are the real highlight of the exhibition, have the same “problem.” We are forced to relate not to the piece itself, but to documentation of the piece. Tehching Hsieh’s “One Year Performance 1978-1979” is shown only in a couple of photos and a pair of letters that testify to the fact that Hsieh locked himself in a cage for a year and did not speak, read, watch television or listen to the radio. While Hsieh stripped his life to the basics, the viewer can only wonder what that would be like. The photos show Hsieh in an open cage. One is discomfited not just by the idea of the silence, but also by the lack of any privacy. The concept is fascinating and unsettling at the same time.

Several of the two-dimensional works are culled from the Menil Collection. Renee Magritte’s “La Chambre d’écoute (The Listening Room),” with its large, green apple, and Giorgio de Chirico’s “Melancholia” will be familiar to patrons of the museum’s fine Surrealist gallery.

Among the show’s highlights are two versions of John Cage’s score for 4’33”. The composition comprises three movements of silence. There are no instruments, but the listener is forced to hear the “musical” accompaniment of the ambient sounds. Here is another artwork that is altered from its original intent by its placement in the gallery. We can see the notations for the work, but we are unable to hear what we see. On the wall next to the score is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings,” which are said to have inspired Cage’s composition.

John Cage, Printed Score for 4’33”, 1960.
Tacet, tacet, tacet version. 11 7/8” x 9 1/8 inches.

It is worth noting the irony of seeing a show about silence during an opening reception that was anything but silent. However, that, in itself, raised interesting questions about how we think we should view art. Is the experience more or less enhanced by sharing it with a crowd? We are, after all, expected to treat museum art with the reverence of a church — an expectation which, in most cases, is an artificial constraint which really contributes little to one’s enjoyment of the work.

Settling down to watch “AION,” a film by Jacob Kirkegaard, one of the four scenes that make up the film ended and I waited for the next to begin. After a relatively short time, I decided nothing was going to happen and I wondered whether I should just leave. My friend urged patience, and that is when the point of “Silence” became apparent. Kirkegaard’s film shows scenes from abandoned buildings in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which were empty following the nuclear reactor disaster. The images, infused with manipulated ambient sounds, reveal themselves slowly, forcing the viewer to try to work out what they are. Eventually, one gives in and allows the slow reveal to appear in the artist’s time. The ambient sounds of the film merge with the sounds of the gallery outside, and we disappear into an interior world.

Silence, or the lack thereof, is a theoretical impossibility. The works on display in “Silence” challenge our desire for, and comprehension of its meaning. It is possible to appreciate the component parts; but as for the concept, I can only say _____________.


A series of events are being held during the run of the exhibition. For information, visit

The Menil Collection is located at 1515 Sul Ross in Houston.