Slow down and listen. This is not often the advice one reads for an art review. Typically one spends an average of five to fifteen seconds looking at any artwork. The routine is: Look at one piece and then go to the next one, have a free drink at the opening, catch up with friends, talk the night up or attend the next opening, and repeat. Lina Dib’s show North to South and Back at Space HL in Houston challenges visitors to do the opposite. There is not much to see here. It is dark and the walls are painted black. The floors are covered in charcoal-colored carpeting, small speakers dangle from the ceiling, a lone spotlight against the black wall is pretty much the only source of light (it represents the Sun), and a visitors’ silence is needed to understand the work.
A multi-disciplinary artist, Dib is very much a technologist. She is known for her interactive motion-sensory projections, and teaches writing about art and the environment at Rice University. However, her current show has taken a turn away from installations reliant on technological display.
When entering the space, after your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, find a seat and listen the sounds of bird calls. These are migratory birds of Texas and some of their populations are in decline. Twenty speakers emanate up to two-dozen bird calls. They take turns, as you never hear them all at once. A song starts in one speaker then moves to another. Crisscrossing the room, it creates audio patterns mimicking flights and migratory movements. Warblers, cranes and swifts alternate and create similar patterns. In between are calls mimicked by a seven-year-old immigrant prodigy who has learned to sound as authentic as the real birds. You can stroll from speaker to speaker, follow the pathways — or sit, close your eyes and imagine not being in an art gallery. Many visitors choose to recline on the floor, to let the darkness induce a slumber. A complex of calls, interpretations, and echoes, with touches of instrumental interventions, allow the aural experience to dominate and provide a chance for visitors to exercise the subtleties of listening.
It is rare that any art space contemplates a show where there is nothing to see. But Space HL and Dib took the risk. Space HL (formerly galleryHOMELAND) is a nonprofit, and its owner Paul Middendorf has made part of its conceptual mission to be a “creative incubator” for experimental exhibitions, performance and sound. With a new multi-year lease in a building in Houston’s East End, it serves as a counterpoint to the strictly for-profit art venue. Space HL continues galleryHOMELAND’s tradition of aesthetic experience, where transcendence of our material surroundings is the aim of the artwork. These types of art installations do not happen in a vacuum. They happen with the support of other like-minded people and venues, and recognizing this collaboration is long overdue.
With a background in anthropology, Dib takes inspiration from the naturalist Johann Naumann’s discovery of bird migration. It used to be thought that birds hibernate during the winter and cold months of the year to re-emerge in the spring. From an ornithological perspective, North to South and Back becomes an aural taxonomy of Texas migratory bird calls. Sound art becomes a system to hear and identify avian life. In many ways it becomes sonic evidence of our natural history. With the accumulation of recorded wildlife sounds, an installation like this could potentially assist anthropologists and naturalists to understand the effects of human encroachment on native habitats, human-induced climate change and chart declines in avian populations. I contacted the Houston Museum of Natural Science, to ask if they had such a record, but haven’t heard back. Even though Dib’s show borrows the research as art-practice model, this is still an artwork with mystery. A ghostly soundtrack of an extinct bird marks the beginning and end of the audio cycle. Presentation, process and intention matter. This is Dib, not Carl Linnaeus.
One of the more interesting aspects about the installation, done deliberately or not, is the way it addresses issues of inclusivity and accessibility for individuals who are visually impaired. More and more museums and nonprofits seek to adopt new strategies. Audio tours, braille wall labels and maps, touch exhibits (even the Uffizi Gallery in Florence has a dedicated touch room), reduced lighting, and haptic technology are being developed to aid the legally or totally blind and those partially sighted. Whether or not Dib intended to address this issue, the exhibition works around the obstacles of accessibility by presenting just sound. In fact those who are not sight-dominant may have an experiential advantage. The optics are unimportant. Its accessibility allows anyone to appreciate the work. Sonic aesthetics envelop visitors in the socio-political and scientific implications of recorded birds songs. Creating a sound installation opens art up to new audiences; aural senses take precedence over the visual sense. Let this be a strong suggestion to other Texas artists.
This could be a real breakthrough for Lina Dib. The potential for this work is expansive. The exhibit reveals depth by finding alternative purposes beyond pure aesthetic pleasure. Its usefulness is myriad: to record bird songs for posterity; to serve as a sonic research-science art practice; to act as a model for socially inclusive exhibitions; to question humanity’s impact on the natural world; or to act as a parable about human migration. North to South and Back offers potentialities for Dib, and other artists, to explore options for what art can do and who it can serve.
Through July 7, 2019 at Space HL, Houston.