Atmospheres and Soundtracks

The worlds encountered in the works of Field Recordings—whether produced collaboratively or by the group’s individual members—are striking in their absolute particularity. The viewer is aware, straight away, that these are not scenes waiting self-consciously for a filmmaker to appear; they will continue with or without an audience’s attention. The people, places, and situations they depict are invested with a richness of visual and aural texture that seems, in the moment, to supersede the environment in which it is shown, a vitality so striking as to make us doubt, for that moment, the validity of daily experience removed from direct contact with the elements. Immersing us in the working routines and environmental conditions of some of Shanghai’s bustling waterways, they draw a contrast between strains of everyday experience, neither allowing the viewer complete access, nor smoothing out the different inherent in these activities.

The cumulative effect of Field Recordings’ project is, then, to emphasise universality by alluding to the bubbles in which we live out our daily routines—apparently seamless containers of ‘reality’ that are in fact vulnerable to external forces of change, such as mass industrialisation and urban development. There’s a familiar, often touching humanity to the relationships portrayed, to the expressions and gestures, and to the patterning of activity, which allows them to remain at once personal to the works’ subjects and accessible to its viewers, in that respect bridging the distance between New Zealand and China. And while there is a specific set of histories here, there are also other kinds of narrative that we can follow without additional knowledge.

One critical way in which these stories are made accessible—and, beyond that, actively engaging—is through the artists’ treatment of sound throughout the exhibition. Working with multi-channel video installation as well as more conventional single-screen presentation, Clinton Watkins faces an array of technical challenges here in considering not only the interlinked progression of sound and image within individual films, but also the relationship of any single work in the gallery to its neighbours. Employing environmental audio, Watkins emphasises the atmosphere already present in the videos’ imagery, building atmosphere without recourse to external material. And unusually for an artist who makes music, his goal is not even to create a distinct score, but rather to engender what he calls “emptiness,” an aural-spatial echo of the films’ visual elements that augments their flavor, like salt added to fish.

While Watkins’s characterisation downplays the role of sound in works such as Field Recordings’ Xiao Pudong (2017) and Let the Water Flow (2016), the reality is more dynamic. The environments that these works describe can be extremely harsh, the contemporary (albeit battered) industrial world grating noisily against elemental forces. So when the artist talks about, for example, “smoothing out” the sound between scenes—engineering a continuity between them that may or may not otherwise exist—what he’s actually referring to is the maintenance of intensity. Assisting in this effort here is his Invisible Narratives, a long-form multichannel sound work that plays throughout the gallery, suturing together its distinct contents. Using environmental recordings from the same sources as the videos, it is distinguished by the addition of pure tones (a longstanding motif of Watkins’s), which produces an abstracted, “ambient” condition.

This conception of sound as being both specific to a particular time and place and evocative of an overarching and more loosely defined mood resonates with the way in which both Xiao Pudong and Let the Water Flow juxtapose ideas of breadth and intimacy. In Xiao Pudong, we are introduced to a group of borderline territories—between land and water, poverty and wealth, the natural and built environments. Sound defines these loci individually, but interweaves them too. It helps document a shift away from certain forms of work that is affecting an entire community, but also contributes to a detailed portrayal of one man’s life. In Let the Water Flow, sound is a tool for mapping separate domains—those of the Suzhou and Chang Jiang (Yangtze) rivers, and Hengsha Island—but is at once divided and multiplied across channels in way that stresses common ground.

Tracey Guo’s video The Nine Days (2017) was also shot by a river, Chao Bai, which divides the artist’s hometown from Beijing. Here, however, the aural focus is narrowed to limn the particularities of a solitary human voice, that of the artist’s grandmother, who was born close to the river but now lives in the city. The artist’s grandmother discusses bird life around the water and recounts a childhood memory of collecting dry leaves to burn on the fire, while the work’s title alludes to a local term for the season—“nine sets of nine days”—that follows the Winter Solstice. Each such interval has its own particular characteristic—“In the first and second nine days / It is too cold to put your hand out”—and that harshness that forms such a key part of Xiao Pudong and Let the Water Flow returns in different, subtler shape. While it has a more outwardly poetic cast than the other works here, even The Nine Days thus connects with a long tradition of realism in film.

Looking at this exhibition as a whole, at the way it fuses an unblinking documentary impulse with a more impressionistic vision—one that it often uses sound to augment—a few other artist’s works resonate. Though outwardly worlds away, Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno’s film Zidane, a 21st century portrait (2006) is one, its juxtaposition of the grand scale of an international football match with the obsessive focus on a single participant echoing Field Recordings’ fusions of micro and macro. A closer echo in terms of subject matter is Allan Sekula’s epic Fish Story (1989–95), an accumulation of photographs, slides, and writing that documents maritime industry around the world, and which marks the artist’s rejection of postmodernism in favor of a more grassroots approach and focus. Like these works, the projects of Field Recordings and its members constitute investigations that incorporate an acute awareness of multiple, overlapping contexts—local and global, personal and political. They’re absorbing, reaching out from the particular to become part of a larger, louder conversation.

MICHAEL WILSON is Art Editor at GARAGE, New York, and the author of How to Read Contemporary Art: Experiencing the Art of the 21st Century. Formerly Editor, Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, he has written for to Art Monthly, Artforum, Frieze, Modern Painters, and Time Out New York, and contrib- uted essays to catalogues published by museums and galleries including the Asia Society, MoMA PS1, Matthew Marks Gallery, The Photographers Gallery, and Reflex Gallery.

“现场边”作品中的世界,无论是协同制作还是单独创作,其无与伦比的特殊性 皆有着惊人效果。观众立刻意识到,这些场景并不受控于电影制作人的操作, 无论观众关注与否,场景兀自展现。场景所描绘的人物、地点和情景皆融入了 丰富的视听质感,似乎在此时此刻足以取代它所展现的环境本体;这种震撼的 活力在那么一个时刻不禁让我们怀疑,日常经验已从与各种元素的直接触碰中 消除。场景让我们沉浸于上海繁华水道的自然和人为工作环境中,与我们的日 常经验形成对比,既不允许观众的完全接触,也不消除这些活动固有的隔阂感。

“现场边”项目的作品累积着这样一个暗示-我们都是生活在被日常规范所包裹 的气泡状小宇宙中,从而强调一种普世性。这种普世性要表达的是:貌似包含 在无缝容器中的“现实”实际上极易受到外部变化的冲击,例如大工业化和城市 发展。场景所描绘的关系,人物的表情姿态,以及活动模式,无不透露着熟悉而 感人的人性化关怀,使得它们在忠于表达作品主题的同时让观众得以自行解读, 以此弥合新西兰与中国之间的认知距离。虽然作品的表达依赖于其历史设定,但 其它类型的艺术表述使我们在没有额外知识的情况下仍能理解作品。

让这些故事得以被观众解读并感同身受的关键方法,是艺术家们对整个展览中的 声音加以处理。克林顿·沃特金斯在多频影像装置以及更常规的单屏录像中,面 临着一系列技术挑战,不仅要考虑个体电影中声音和形象的相互关联叠进,还须 考虑展厅内某一作品与其相邻作品之间的关系。沃特金斯使用环境音频,以强调 视频图像中已展现的氛围,无须借助外部材料来营造气氛。沃特金斯的目标甚至 不是创造独特的配乐,这对于作为音乐人出身的艺术家来说是很不同寻常的。在 此,沃特金斯执意营造一种“虚空感”,以电影视觉元素的声音在空间的回声增 强其趣味,恰有画龙点睛的效果。

沃特金斯的表现手法淡化了“现场边”在《小浦东》(2017)和《让水一直流》 (2016)等作品中声音的作用,现实则更为生动。这些作品描述的环境可能是非
常苛刻的,当代(虽然受到打击)的工业世界高调排斥环境的基本力量。因此, 当艺术家谈及例如“平滑过渡”场景之间的声音,即构设场景之间的连续性,无 论其本身存在与否,艺术家实际上指的是表现强度的维持。他的《无形的叙述》 即致力于实现这一目标,在整个展厅中播放这个多通道声音作品,把各分部内容 紧密缝合在一起。沃特金斯使用与视频相同来源的环境音频,通过添加纯音调( 这是沃特金斯的长期主题)来区分,从而营造抽象的“环境”设定。

对声音的这种概念运用,即声音既具体到一个特定的时间和地点,又唤起更具 贯穿性并且更宽松定义的情绪共鸣,衬托出《小浦东》和《让水一直流》的宽 宏与细腻并存。作品《小浦东》把观众置身于边界地带-土地和水之间,贫穷和富裕,自然和人工环境。声音单独定义了这些地点轨迹,并与之交融。声音既 作用于记录影响整个社会的某些工作形式的式微,也作用于具体描述个体人的生 活。在《让水一直流》中,声音的运用则作为地界工具划分不同地域 – 苏州和 长江河流以及横沙岛,既各自分离又支流相连,本为一体。

果子暄的影片《数九》(2017)也是拍摄于河边,潮白河将艺术家的故乡与北京 隔开。然而,在这里,听觉焦点被缩小,以衬托人声的孤寂,那是艺术家祖母的 声音,烘托祖母出生于河边现居闹市的心情。艺术家的祖母讲述了河附近一带水 鸟的生活情景,忆起孩童时代收集干树叶烧火的往事,而作品的标题则用方言提 示季节设定-“九九消寒”,便是冬至交九了。每个九天都各有特色,比如“一 九二九不出手”,这种在《小浦东》和《让水一直流》中作为主题呈现的严苛环 境在数九后又回复到柔和的迥异形态。《数九》比其它作品在表述上诗意更浓, 即便如此,作品仍不失体现现实主义电影的悠久传统。

纵观整个展览,印象派的视野风格与纪实派的试听冲击相融合,声音也恰到好处 地用以增强效果,与其他一些艺术家的作品产生共鸣。在世界另一端,道格拉斯· 高登和菲利普·帕雷诺的电影 《齐达内,二十一世纪的肖像》(2006)就是运用
了类似的表现手法。在该影片中,国际足球比赛盛事的壮伟展现与聚焦于一个参 与者的细致描述,遥相呼应了现场录音作品细微与宏大的交汇。在主题方面运用 类似手法的是艾伦·塞库拉的叙事诗作品《鱼故事》(1989-95年)。该作品运 用与世界海运业相关的照片、幻灯片和文字作品作为原材料加以累积;艺术家对 草根方法及主题加以侧重,象征其对后现代主义的拒绝。像这些作品一样,“现 场边”及其成员进行采访调查的项目联合体现出对地方和全球,个人和政治多方 面层叠大环境的敏锐认识。他们正融会贯通,从固有特色中衍生加入到更宏大、 更响亮的艺术对话中。