Harald Szeemann                                                                                              pdf

Within the framework of the exhibition GAS (Grandiose Ambitieux Silencieux) at the capc Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux, Max Neuhaus created a sound work which is now part of the museum's permanent collection. He gave it a verbal component: 'Two passages, bearing in between, shadow and daylight, identical in form, diverging in spirit'.

The passages are two stairways in the museum, each at a corner of the cloistered mezzanine surrounding the 'grand nef' exhibition space. These ascending and descending spaces with barrel-vaulted ceilings, unsuitable for material works, are the spaces of reception, receivers for sounds which Max Neuhaus creates - sounds that are barely audible.

One has to invest time to hear these sounds, to come to a spatial conclusion, and then to fuse sound and space, to grasp this quality of contemporary sculpture: its site specificity.

Initially the work presents itself as a question about the sources of the sounds, which seem without beginning or end. We then discard previous knowledge and pursue these inconceivable, indefinable tones. Next evocation appears. Now, we want to know where the sound is coming from and what it is. Then, the question of genesis - Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? - is subtly disturbed by the timelessness of the succession of sound impulses. Their time-dependent logic and the sequence embedded in the course of time are dissolved.

The 'who are we?' in these two stairways glides in real time into the question: From where, through the sound in these spaces, does the ego get its ability to imagine? And only then do we realize that it is a sound texture which carries us and makes us spatially active.

Just as visual sculpture detached itself from an object which could be contemplated from all sides and incorporated the site itself into the sculptural event as a fourth dimension, Max Neuhaus has detached sound from music, from the confinement of a sequence with a beginning and an end, and transports us into an immediately spatial experience without detouring through materialization.

These two spaces in the museum are symmetrical - the reason they inspired the artist to create a dialectic sound form. The right-hand space is filled with a vibrating, relatively aggressive sound, which for me does not involve the body but stops abruptly after reaching the inner ear. The listener's state of siege here contrasts with the left-hand stairway with its spacious and peaceful sound. This sound resounds like distant evening chimes, sometimes far away, and then as though within ourselves, activating fundamental distances - the internal and the external.

The visitor who goes from one space to the other compares the sounds and experiences something akin to a visual parallel: an encounter with a differentiated monochromy. An experience where attention to the incidence of the brush, not only says nothing about mood and style, frame of mind and historical dimension; but instead compels absorption into the essence of an ahistorical experience. Tones thus become sound, noises become streams of hearing. Interlaced rhythm becomes like a conveyor belt, addition becomes synthesis, the conveyor belt becomes the environment, synthesis becomes a simultaneity of hearing and seeing. The walls, the arched ceilings, the steps become projection levels of our own imaginations, released by the sound. Thus, here we have a series of Haikus, and there the picture of the 'Angelus'.

Max Neuhaus provides each of his sound works with a drawing which is neither musical notation nor an artistic or technical sketch. Here, he has drawn two stairways in perspective, one blue, one violet. He has taken the spaces as a starting point for the sound structures which, of course, can not be represented. The drawings, lacking information about the sound components, must be seen as process-related notations in combination with an accompanying text. They refer more to spatio-sculptural occurrence, not unlike the traditional form of sculptor's drawings where the contour alone implies plasticity.

In a similar situation with two symmetrical rooms (Hamburg, 1989), Max Neuhaus once wrote: 'When certain kinds of sounds are very soft, they become something which is sensed rather than actually heard - a presence more than a sound. The two spaces of this work each have a different sound of this kind. These two sounds have contrasting natures. Although the two spaces seem identical when one first enters, after a few moments when aural attention has had a chance to focus - one realizes that they are, in fact, quite different'.

In the beginning there was perhaps the word, then the image; in the end, there will undoubtedly be the sound.


First published as "Max Neuhaus", Kunstforum International 127 (Ruppichteroth), 1994