Reviews Published 29 April 2016

Review: This is a Voice at the Wellcome Collection

Until 31 July 2016

“To build an exhibition around a primarily aural experience is nothing if not audacious” – Ruth Garde reviews the Wellcome Collection’s free exploration of speech, song and performance.

Ruth Garde
'This is a voice' at the Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Collection

‘This is a voice’ at the Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Collection

At the tender age of twelve I developed a performance anxiety that made the prospect of speaking (or worse, singing) in public completely terrifying. It became so crippling that even standing at the back of a 100-strong choir was beyond the pale. Only recently, with the help of skilful mentors and encouraging colleagues, have I reached a place where public speaking is now a tolerable, and sometimes an almost welcome, experience.

I wondered how this emotional baggage might influence my experience of Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition This is a Voice, a radical and unconventional look at our most fundamental instrument of human communication. In the words of its curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, this is ‘a highly performative exhibition’: not only in the conventional shape of the singers, musicians and actors whose performances are captured in the many contemporary video art works on display, but also in the more subtle examples of how mimicry, courtship, and the core aspects of our identity, such as gender, social class, and geographical roots are performed through the voice. In two of the works featured the exhibition even offers its visitors the opportunity to perform in both speech and song, within and beyond the space of the gallery.

To build an exhibition around a primarily aural experience is nothing if not audacious.

The first room immediately rises to this challenge with a daring opening work by Anna Barham, in which a digitally animated rotating head emits a variety of distinctly non-human crackles, gurgles, crunches, and boings while the lips open and close and the tongue and teeth can be seen to move in a cold synthetic cavity. The work instantly dissociates the instrument of the voice from its usual utterances, thereby challenging us to leave behind any assumptions about vocal communications and their meanings.

What follows is a series of themed spaces in which questions about the voice – why and how it is used, how it conveys meaning, how it is trained, altered and manipulated, what happens when it is lost or damaged through trauma or illness, how it identifies us, how and why we hear disembodied voices – are explored through anthropological, psychological, cultural and artistic lenses. The first space probes the theory that the voice evolved for the purpose of song and social bonding rather than for information exchange. Here the visitor is immersed in the haunting sound of Joan La Barbara’s Circular Song in which the singer experiments with extended vocal techniques. Nearby the sound of the polyphonic choral singing of the Bayaka community can be heard, recorded at dawn in the rainforests of the Central African Republic. The vocal relationship between the human and natural worlds moves further centre stage in Marcus Coates’s extraordinary Dawn Chorus. For this work 19 amateur singers who had listened to slowed-down recordings of birdsong were filmed imitating them vocally in their own domestic settings (in their front room, kitchen, office, even a bath). With their voices re-sped up to match the pitch of the original birdsongs, the sounds are uncannily authentic: you would never guess that it was the sound of human mimicry. Dawn Chorus is convincing evidence of Coates’s belief that the structures (and functions) of vocalisation are too similar between human and animal species to be mere coincidence.

Having being surrounded and enveloped by Coates’s uncanny human birdsong the central area of the exhibition opens up into an expansive space that is the most performative, emphasising manifestations of the voice before and beyond words (this is also the space where daily live vocalisations will take place). Mikhail Karikis’s dramatic video and photographic works focus on the physical extremes of vocal production and how the face itself is brought into play in these exertions. Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music features the performance of a haunting musical composition involving both voices and other instruments. Danica Dakić’s moving video of a young deaf girl during a singing lesson reminds us of other physical modes of communication when the voice and sound are absent.

The exhibition moves from the muted voice to the voice that is damaged or diseased. Nowhere is its malleability and fragility more poignantly probed than in one of the most moving artefacts on display in the exhibition: the preserved throat of Marianne Harland, a famous 18th century singer who tragically lost her voice (and then life) to tuberculosis. This meagre, mute remnant of a voice now lost forever is displayed alongside exquisite watercolours depicting vocal pathologies from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital archives and a series of Chinese woodcuts illustrating throat conditions, some of a handful of objects on display from non-Western artistic and medical traditions.

As a singer, Marianne Harland was inextricably identified with her voice. But we all – singers and non singers alike – engage the voice in complex ways to perform elements of our identity and the exhibition invites us to think about how we might be performing ourselves. Katarina Zdjelar’s film The Perfect Sound observes a language coach and his student during an ‘Accent Removal Training session’ in Birmingham, raising questions of social class and the politics and prejudices associated with vocal accents. Chris Chapman’s film of two people who have undergone gender transition humorously explores the ways in which they try to sound more conventionally ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’.

The quite sparsely populated central space gives way in the final section to a busy, object-rich section that explores a rich panoply of disembodied voices in terms of myth, spirituality, psychology as well as technology, from an oil painting of the head of Orpheus who continued singing after death to the recording of Billie Whitelaw’s legendary performance of Beckett’s Not I. I was particularly struck by a thought-provoking installation created by young people who hear voices, which, along with three medieval manuscripts from the British Library, explode the stereotypes surrounding the often troubling phenomenon of voice-hearing in surprising ways.

I confess that I sidestepped the invitation in the last room to participate in Chorus, a specially commissioned work by musician Matthew Herbert. Visitors are encouraged to enter a recording booth to sing a note that will be added to an ever-expanding sound installation that will play both in the exhibition space and at the Royal Opera House. It seems that my performance anxiety is yet to be fully conquered.

Though the sound bleed in the centre of the exhibition space is somewhat distracting and confusing, This Is A Voice more than meets the challenge set by the curator to create a ‘sound journey across the gallery’. With subtle labelling that allows the aural experience to take centre-stage, ingenious exhibition design that makes a virtue out of exposed acoustic materials and with well-chosen objects that complement the stories told through the audio-visual materials, this is a show that is a feast for the eyes, ears, and everything in between them.


Review: This is a Voice at the Wellcome Collection Show Info




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