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online e-dition july 17

perspectives on infinity

chris reid: nothing-object, forever, riley o’keeffe, cacsa

Riley O'Keeffe, Nothing-Object, Forever, 2012,  performance of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music Riley O'Keeffe, Nothing-Object, Forever, 2012, performance of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music
courtesy the artist

O’Keeffe is a visual artist and Reich’s work is performed in the centre of an installation. There are pencil drawings on graph paper, a wall-drawing and expressionistic paintings on raw, unstretched canvas that are all concerned with visual mapping, especially the use of perspective, ways of seeing that have underpinned western art for centuries.

The CACSA Project Space is a large, brightly lit, antiseptically white-walled and gabled space whose almost bare internal planes firmly position you in an architectural perspective. On the floor facing upwards is a row of four loudspeakers, each with a microphone on a long cord hanging above. For the hour preceding the performance, we hear sounds from other elements of the installation—the rhythmic feedback hum of two closely miked electric fans. Not part of Reich’s work, they’re switched off before the performance but warm us up for it.

Riley O'Keeffe, Nothing-Object, Forever, 2012 Riley O'Keeffe, Nothing-Object, Forever, 2012
courtesy the artist

The premise of Reich’s Pendulum Music is simple—when the four loudspeakers on the floor are switched on, four performers simultaneously set the dangling mikes swinging above them. As the mikes swing back and forth, they generate oscillating feedback that begins in synch and then shifts out of phase as the pendulums’ oscillations diverge. The aggregating body of sound gradually moves towards equilibrium and when the mikes have stopped swinging the speakers are switched off.

The performance is loud and we can feel it. We’re entranced by the evolution of the sound and the exploration of phasing that was a central theme in Reich’s early work. Beyond the aural and physical sensations, we contemplate infinity expressed as a feedback loop, the process of entropic decay, the effects of chance and the way the electronically generated signal incorporates ambient noise. We know this piece will be different every time it’s performed, as there are so many variables that affect the sonic outcome. Obliquely, it recalls Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha (1974), the visual equivalent of the sonic feedback loop into which a viewer could trespass.

Amongst the large and enthusiastic audience is renowned Australian artist Margaret Dodd, who tells me of a performance of Pendulum Music she saw in a New York warehouse in 1968, the year it was written. Back then, Reich’s work was groundbreaking sonically and conceptually, challenging accepted musical forms and norms. I think about all that has happened in music in the last 44 years and how this work represents the break from the intensity of the high modernism that dominated musical and artistic development in the first half of the 20th century. In this incarnation, there is implicit homage to electrically amplified instrumentation and its effect on musical composition, as well as homage to Reich himself, a founder of minimalism and process music. It’s good that this is happening in Adelaide, where the sound art scene is not as vigorous as in Sydney and Melbourne. (It’s to be hoped that this performance whets appetites and stimulates development.)

Riley O'Keeffe, Nothing-Object, Forever, 2012 Riley O'Keeffe, Nothing-Object, Forever, 2012
courtesy the artist

O’Keeffe’s installation also includes a curious perspex box containing two speakers with tiny mikes suspended above them, a vitrine containing the apparatus of sound, rendered as sculpture that signifies feedback but which remains mute throughout the event. Another curious element is a form you can complete—you enter your name, the years you were born and died, family members, and a self-evaluation box—an instant obituary, suggesting the finitude of life and the infinity of the beyond.

O’Keeffe’s exhibition contemplates infinity and nothingness from multiple viewpoints. Infinity is suggested by the fugitive horizon line of the artist’s perspective. The horizon is an abstract concept, a trompe l’oeil, for you can never reach it, it recedes as you approach. I like O’Keeffe’s Nothing-Object, Forever, the way he has refreshed Reich’s concept and used it with architectural, visual, sculptural, textual and other sonic devices to demonstrate a proposition. Perspective establishes, and arises from, a viewing position. The concept of perspective is anthropocentric: it’s not about the viewed but about the viewer. This installation is about how subjectivity arises through awareness. We become aware of the pendulum’s movement through sound, of space and (our) location through mapping, and of life through the idea of its termination.

CACSA, Riley O’Keeffe, Nothing-Object, Forever, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Project Space, Adelaide, June 15-July 15;

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. web

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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