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Ernie Althoff, The Middle Eight, Geelong Gallery Ernie Althoff, The Middle Eight, Geelong Gallery
courtesy the artist
You can hear Ernie Althoff’s work as soon as you enter the Geelong Gallery—a quiet, metallic ringing—and as you walk around the gallery, gentle sounds permeate the space and affect your appreciation of the art on display.

Althoff’s work, The Middle Eight, sits on a long, low plinth on the floor of an otherwise empty room in the centre of the gallery, adjacent to another, larger room that contains the main body of work in the exhibition, The Freedom of Angels, Sculpture in a Century of Upheaval, of which it forms a pivotal element. In a program note, Althoff explains that the work's title refers both to the geometry of the room, which is in the middle of the gallery, and to “the musical term denoting the ‘bridge’ part of a pop song that differs from the verse-and-chorus units. Hence, The Middle Eight signifies both the physical structure of the installation and the music it plays.”

This survey exhibition includes works ranging in style from neo-classical, such as Cesare Lapini’s delightful late 19th century marble The Kiss of Love, through modernist to postmodern, including the powerful abstract steel fabrications of Clement Meadmore, Inge King and Ron Robertson-Swann, the ironic assemblage of Aleks Danko and Rosalie Gascoigne’s transcendentally beautiful panels made from found crates. Mounted on industrial scaffolding rather than conventional museum plinths, the works in this exhibition, by some of the most important figures in Australian art, traverse the range of visual language and cultural perspectives of the 20th century, an era from which we have now perhaps gained sufficient distance that we can fully appreciate the enormous social, technological and artistic changes that it encompassed.

The Middle Eight comprises nine old phono turntables sitting beneath timber frames that support a variety of metal and timber objects, including eight brass gongs, various baking tins and food cans, some augmented with springs, and small sheets of plywood. Mounted on the turntables are small metal brackets and, as the turntables revolve, the brackets strike dangling strings fitted with hammers that strike the gongs, tins and other objects to produce a range of delicate ringing and clattering sounds. The result is like an eight note gamelan augmented by other sounds, and with only small differences between its tones. The swaying hammers aren’t always activated at every revolution of the turntable, and even when they are, they might not strike the target object — there is a high level of chance built into the work. The components are generally cheap, found objects, but assembled with much care. Even the electrical cable connecting the turntables is laid out on small plywood mountings, and rows of small stones are arranged in between the turntables to add another visual dimension to the work. The turntables turn at the uniformly slow speed of 16 rpm, and given the low probability of the hammers striking their targets, there are often long pauses between particular tones, and the melodic sequence that results is endlessly variable. The overall effect is of ambient sound a little like wind-chimes but more complex. In the uniquely resonant space of the Geelong Gallery, this music is intriguing and seductive.
Ernie Althoff, The Middle Eight, Geelong Gallery Ernie Althoff, The Middle Eight, Geelong Gallery
courtesy the artist
Althoff has been making kinetic works of this kind since the late 1970s. Typically they involve the use of very simple objects set up to generate a variety of sounds, sometimes meditative and sometimes chaotically loud and intrusive. In some previous works, Althoff has included audience participation in the design, but here the audience simply looks and listens. Conceptually, there is irony in the artist’s use of the turntable, which was invented to replay recorded sound accurately, but which is now used to generate new sound aleatorically.

The sculpture exhibition draws on a quote from Michelangelo, “I saw (an) Angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Althoff’s work sets sound free from its metal and timber constructions. Through the twin catalysing forces of electrical power and the composer’s design, sound is now encouraged to flow from musical and unmusical objects. The listener can experience and understand familiar ambient sounds anew, and better understand what it is to engage in the act of making sound or music. By using electro-mechanical devices (the turntables) to activate the tins and gongs, Althoff shows how the musician catalyses an object in a way that establishes its meaning and renders it an instrument. These electro-mechanical devices parody human musicians executing a score. The score, or orchestration, is not as precise as those of some other mechanical music-making devices such as player-pianos, but is more calculated and precise in nature than, say, a chime activated only by the wind.

Showing The Middle Eight in a sculpture exhibition contextualises Althoff’s work as sculpture rather than as sound art or performance. In the concert hall, the work would be judged against other forms of musical performance, and we now see how this interpretation can limit appreciation. When seen as sculpture, Althoff’s work enlarges our understanding of musical objects, visual art objects and everyday objects, questioning the distinction between commonplace materials and art. Importantly, it adds to the exhibition the elements of the electro-mechanical device, kinetic sculpture and Art Povera, completing the Geelong Gallery’s finely detailed picture of 20th century sculpture.


See Dean Linguey’s interview with Ernie Althoff : RT #70, p46

Ernie Althoff, The Middle Eight, in the exhibition The Freedom of Angels, Sculpture in a Century of Upheaval, Geelong Gallery, May 8-July 5

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. web

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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