The CAM’s Summer Shows Explore the Capacity of Sound and the Power of Silence

 In Culture, Interviews

When is a whisper louder than a scream? That’s the question at the heart of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’ summer exhibitions, all three of which focus on the power of the unheard, the unseen and the unwitnessed.

The catalyst for the show, open now through August 18 in Grand Center, was a new project by Beirut-based artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Earwitness Theatre,” which has been shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize. After working with Amnesty International to help document and understand the experiences of inmates at a notorious Syrian prison, Hamdan discovered that one of the most traumatic ordeals they endure is silence: Silence that they are forced to maintain, even as their fellow prisoners are beaten, tortured and executed just steps away. More shocking, still, was that this involuntary silence was not recognized as a form of violence.

“Earwitness Theatre” employs both sound and the absence of sound and utilizes sound art, video installation and Foley objects—named after sound-effects artist Jack Foley, these are reproductions of everyday sounds, which Hamdan uses to mimic the auditory experience of unrecorded violent events and evoke the “psychological, bodily and spatial world of the earwitness,” says the CAM’s website. The show is a searing examination of the unspoken and the unlistenable that’s particularly ripe for conversation in St. Louis, where questions of the validity of various forms of witness and their relationship to justice have rattled our local dialogue time and again.

Image courtesy of Chris Bauer for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

The CAM’s chief curator, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, saw something in Hamdan’s work that she thought would speak to St. Louisans and would resonate particularly well alongside the work of his co-exhibitors: St. Louis-based mixed-media artist Eric Ellingsen and Los Angeles-based photographer and artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya. Guided: Saint Louis spoke with Al-Khudhairi about her curatorial process and how art can teach locals to listen more closely to the world around them.

Guided: Tell me about your curatorial process and the genesis of the CAM’s summer exhibitions.

Wassan Al-Khudhairi: It all started with my interest in working with Lawrence Abu Hamdan. I’ve worked with him before, but I wanted to bring this particular project to St. Louis because of the nature of his works. We built the summer show around “Earwitness Inventory”—the collection of Foley objects—and two other pieces, which together make up Lawrence’s “Earwitness Theatre.”

Meanwhile, I’d been talking to Eric Ellingsen, whom I met shortly after I moved to St. Louis a year and a half ago, and I knew he was interested in working with sound, too. Once I knew that Lawrence’s project was happening, I started thinking about all the ways to activate our courtyard at the CAM. Although their styles are different, there are some interesting similarities between the two artists: They’re both intrigued by sound as a medium, but also think of sound as something more, for example.

We always talk about bringing the world to St. Louis and St. Louis to the world at the CAM. While Lawrence lives and practices very far away, he’s making art that affects all of us, and I think people in St. Louis can relate to what he’s talking about in this exhibition. However, I think his themes can be further articulated by someone who is based here, such as Eric, who addresses some of the same ideas from a local perspective. Together they expose the shared human experience and help us see that the world is smaller than we think.

Image courtesy of Chris Bauer for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Guided: Ellingsen’s “Tool Shed” is definitely a highlight of the show. It uses a combination of sculpture—a literal shed that he built in the courtyard of the CAM—and sound in the form of an evolving audio track that was recorded around St. Louis, which Ellingsen has manipulated in fascinating ways. Tell me about that project and how it integrates into the show. 

As an artist, Eric is thinking about some of the same things as Lawrence, but through his own lens, and through the lens of St. Louis. His project is about investigating sound in order to investigate segregation in the city, and specifically in the neighborhood where the CAM is located, as part of our one-mile-radius program. Lawrence is approaching a similar motif on a larger, international scale; he’s introducing the big picture to the show.

Ellingsen’s piece also incorporates what we’re calling a series of “Walkshops,” which are an opportunity for audiences to personally participate in the exhibition by gathering sound within a one-mile radius of the museum. Essentially, people in the community can join Eric on walks to collect the noises of the neighborhood. The audio will be brought back to the museum, reworked, artistically altered and then played in our courtyard.

We’re inviting anyone who’s interested to come along on our “Walkshops,” especially those living in close proximity to the CAM. But even if you don’t participate in any of the “Walkshops,” over the summer you can enjoy the soundtrack that they produce.

Image courtesy of Chris Bauer for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Guided: Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work doesn’t seem to fit as nicely with the other two exhibitions—he doesn’t use sound as a medium, for instance, focusing instead on hyper-intimate photographs that fragment the body and the apparatus of the camera itself in order to evoke a highly tactile and often sensual experience. What do these works have in common with the others in the show, and what do you hope viewers take away from all three exhibitions?

One thing that you can pinpoint as a commonality among the three exhibitions is the idea of absence. If you think about absence in relation to Lawrence’s work, the absence of sound is sound. In Paul’s work, there’s an absence of body, the absence of the traditional figure, and even the absence of the photographer.

When I think about how to shape a program, I contemplate and consider how to make it balanced, but I can only orchestrate so much; at some point I have to go with my gut and have faith that everything will come together. And I think it has this time.

There is something that Lawrence said to me once about art being one of the greatest instruments of truth. When he did investigative work [for Amnesty International], he said there were certain things he uncovered that didn’t have a place in a courtroom, but were nonetheless important. Whispers in unseen spaces don’t carry much weight in a legal case, or in an amnesty report, but they’re still part of the story—maybe an even more significant part of the story than what is seen, heard and reported.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Featured image: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Earwitness Inventory,” installation view, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, Jan. 27–April 28, 2019. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery, London, in partnership with: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Kristien Daem.

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