Susanne Weingarten                                                                                              pdf

Images for the ears: American artist Max Neuhaus has pulled off a coup with an extravagant sound installation at documenta.

Three young people come racing into the building, arm in arm. They are laughing, talking, pushing each other around. Their heels clatter loudly on the floor. They climb the steps, to the first, the second, the third floor. Still laughing and chattering. 'Nothing here, is there?' one of them finally says, petulantly. They leave.

But there is something here. Here, in the plain fifties staircase of the AOK health insurance building on the edge of Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. It's just that the three young people didn't notice it. They were making too much noise, and that made the work of art disappear.

Max Neuhaus's documenta installation, Three to One, is quiet. And absolutely invisible. If you want to experience the high art of the simple you have to tread softly, take your time and keep quiet. You'll feel yourself suddenly starting to listen, your senses sharpening, and your perceptions changing.

At first you just hear a single, constant gentle electronic hum filling the staircase. But as you move up the stairs you realize that each storey has its own note. The three humming notes drift up and down and mix together, and also blend with external noises. Hence the title, Three to One. Three to One is a place of meditation, one of the few at this documenta. It was designed by a great documenta outsider: Max Neuhaus, 53, is the only artist to make art for the ears and not for the eyes. The only sound sculptor, sound painter, sound poet here, internationally known for nearly two decades as someone who experiments more boldly, cleverly and consistently with sounds than any other fine artist.

Neuhaus was attracted by the idea of acoustic counterpoint. A few subtle sounds set against all the noisy images, objects, videos.

Actually he doesn't like large-scale shows. Too many people, too many works. How does that leave you the time and energy you need to pay attention to a work of art? 'Exhibitions are dangerous places for art', he says. This American, who took part in documenta for the first time in 1977, only get involved in group shows every few years - 'so that I can keep being rediscovered'.

Even his neighbors on Ischia, workmen and peasants, know that it's been a long time since he needed to be discovered. They call him 'il famoso', the famous one, but only behind his back. They leave the kindly, round-faced loner in peace. Neuhaus ended up on this Italian island in the Mediterranean off Naples by chance. Four years ago he was intending to spend the summer on Capri, but when he got there he found there was an artists' colony. He dislikes artists' colonies as much as he dislikes big shows. So he took the next ferry to the neighboring island of Ischia. Since that time he has rented a narrow, three-storey house on a tiny mountain road in the little village of Campagnano from the local police chief. He lives here from May to October, and in Paris and New York for the rest of the year.

From his terrace Neuhaus looks down on Ischia Porto, where the ferries come in, over the fortress in the bay where the inhabitants used to seek refuge when under attack from the mainland, and over the island's green mountain range.

Because the art he makes cannot be collected, Neuhaus does not feature on the art market. He doesn't have to dance to a collector's tune or keep galleries happy, and he doesn't have to attend openings. This means that he can live and work as he pleases. 'So why not somewhere beautiful?' he asks. His working resources on Ischia: a personal computer and a digital sound processor. His links with the outside world: a fax and a telephone.

He lives exclusively from commissions, and not badly at that. If you want a temporary Neuhaus for your museum or gallery it'll cost you at least 50,000 dollars; if you want a permanent installation you'll have to invest at least twice as much. A large-scale work can cost half a million dollars.

Neuhaus has to give his buyers a reason for prices like this. 'Most people don't understand that it costs time and money to create a sound.' Not just any sound, of course, but the right sound, the one that fits, the only possible sound. The sound that shapes a place as Neuhaus wants it shaped.

Shape a place with sound? 'Of course', he says, 'what we hear contributes to our impression of a place just as much as what we see'. He is an acoustic architect. He can use sound to make a small space large and a large space small. He can even differentiate two identical spaces through sound in such a way as to make them seem to be different sizes. He'll make you trust you ears instead of your eyes.

How he does this? Neuhaus is not telling. He conceals the electronics, the wires, the loudspeakers. He wants emptiness. He wants pure sound space. Mysterious, magical, enchanted, almost eerie. All you can hear is buzzing or clicking or a bell tinkling. This is how he creates places that suck you into nothingness, tailor-made for trance and dreams. And therein lies the secret of his art.

Neuhaus the magician lives in the digital age. Barefoot, in shorts, shirt unbuttoned over his paunch, he crouches on a chair with a torn seat and types program commands on a PC keyboard. He looks down at Ischia's shimmering bay, groans, types again, giggles, lights a cigarette and thumbs through a manual. He's learning a new computer language intended to make his art easier. It's called Max. 'But not named after me.'

A weakness for fiddling around with delicate technical matters runs in his family. His great-great-grandfather designed the Hamburger Bahnhof, a major train station, in Berlin. And subsequent generations included many engineers, among them Neuhaus's grandfather, who emigrated to America, and his father. But Max did not want to be an engineer, and definitely not in the provincial Texas town of Port Arthur.

When he was 14, he knew he had to be a musician. By 16 he was drumming for a stripper in a bar. At 18 he was hired by a big band that had lost its drummer on a tour. Max took the phone call at midday, drummed for his audition in the afternoon and was sitting on the band bus by evening. And so he got to Chicago. And from there to New York.

He became famous in his first career as a percussionist after a very few years. He concentrated on New Music, played with Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen and made a record of solo percussion pieces for the 'Columbia Masterworks' series in 1968. He was just 28. And then he gave it all up.

He had had enough of performing music in concert halls. He wanted more than music: noise, din, any type of sound one can hear at all. And he wanted more than concert halls: ordinary places like streets, houses, squares, even swimming pools.

He joined the ranks of those crossover artists who had been blurring the dividing line between sound art and pictorial art since the early Modern period. The Dadaists, for instance, who had been playing around with images, music, language and nonsense sounds in the twenties. Or their artistic successors, the Fluxus artists, who had been fighting since the sixties to extend music's classical sound repertoire. They included everyday sounds in their performances. They smashed up pianos and violins. They made offensive noise into an art form.

The great mentor of the Fluxus movement was the composer John Cage. In his 4'33" he made a pianist sit on the platform for four minutes and 33 seconds, without playing. The piece consisted entirely of the noises the audience made in this time. That was revolutionary. But Cage stayed in the hall with his listeners. Max Neuhaus took them outside.

His first action: he invited friends on a walk through Manhattan. He stamped 'Listen' on their hands and led them through the streets. He wanted to show them the sounds of New York, the city symphony made up of the rumbling of the subway, of swishing tires, shouting, noisy people, hissing air-conditioning, the sound of car engines and the clatter of deliveries being made.

This was absolutely natural for someone who lives almost like a blind man, in an acoustic world. Neuhaus says that he recognizes people by their voices, not their faces. And it sounds as though he's amazed it could be otherwise.

In 1977, eleven years after his last Listen walk, Neuhaus made a personal contribution to New York's sound scene with a dull, sonorous buzzing that rises incessantly from a ventilation shaft in Times Square. Most pedestrians who walk over the shaft at this gateway to Broadway don't even notice the buzzing. But some stand still, look around, surprised, vaguely confused - and take notice for a moment. 'I have the feeling', says Neuhaus, 'that in this way Times Square belongs to me'.

By now eight places in five countries belong to him in this way: permanent Neuhaus installations buzz and hum in galleries, in a museum staircase in Chicago, a Cologne art dealer's kitchen and the surroundings of the Kunsthalle in Bern. If it were up to him the sound staircase in Kassel - so far sponsored by German broadcasting company RTL plus - would stay as well.

When documenta is over he would then remove the information column on the ground floor. Nothing to draw attention to his sound space anymore. In public places he prefers art that does not show that it is art. Art that is just there, unobtrusive, subtle and almost modest. Art that's waiting, wanting to be found. Ultimately his works should not belong to him, says Neuhaus, but to the people who live with them.

And if they just don't notice his work, like the three young people at documenta? He shrugs his shoulders. 'I can't set up rules for visitors. They'll become aware of my work when they are ready. Not before.' Neuhaus is completely unflappable. His art is intended to develop its effect over months, even years. Truth be told, it would like to be eternal.

 

 

First published as "Brummen vor dem Tor", Der Spiegel 37, 1992