Entering Micky Schubert, I feel like I have just walked into a museum exhibition. The grand title of the group show already suggests an all encompassing narrative: Marco Bruzzone’s Untitled (2001) screen print by the entrance resembles a promotional poster, Dieter Roelstraete’s introductory essay ‘Stations of Gongs’ graces the wall much like the texts commonly prefacing the entrances to museum rooms and a nearby glass display table featuring research material further emphasizes the institutional aesthetic. Yet, it is hard to believe that Roelstraete, who himself criticized artists for their obsession with the past, would take on a historicist approach in his own curatorial practice. As is expected from the eccentric curator, the deceptively institutional layout is only the surface of Roelstraete’s complex narrative, which is spread across The Gong Show at Micky Schubert and The Bell Show at the neighboring Leuttgenmeijer.
Once I delve a little deeper into the arrangement of works in the first gallery, it soon becomes apparent that these are not just a selection of archetypes enlisted to illustrate the curator’s well-researched subject, which itself grows into a more complex discourse on closer examination, but that something more complex is at stake. Bruzzone’s poster, which I initially dismissed, hides a clue– the musical keys, which hint toward the underlying theme of the show, speak less about the gong as an object than about its sonic qualities. Already I can hear the gong sounds of Pierre Bismuth’s A Brief Historical Survey of Continuity in the J.Arthur Rank Organization (2011)– a loop of the introduction to the Rank Group movies that shows a man with a revealed torso hitting a gigantic gong played across four monitors– which provide an eerie soundtrack to the show. The essence of this incredible sonic experience is echoed in Karl Holmqvist’s work, a poem entitled simply Gongs and Bells (2011). Visceral, yet it is almost like a score for a gong orchestra, each word corresponding to a sound in the reader’s imagination– ‘sculpting with sound’, as Holmqvist puts it. Annika Larsson’s methods are similar, but instead of sculpting with the sound of words, she sculpts with images of words. In her triptych Owl Saying Gong, Adorno Saying Gong, Stork Saying Gong (all works 2011), Larsson adds a speech bubble comprising the word ‘gong’ to the printouts of the three named characters. The short word looks somehow dull and pointless, coming out of living creatures rather than an instrument. Adorno, of course, appears the silliest in this composition; a comment on masculinity that is Larsson’s forte, it works well with half-naked strong man in Bismuth’s videos. The more these videos keep filling the room with sound, the more compelling in their helplessness appear the works of Mark Soo and Wolfgang Tillmans. The former’s Noisemaker No. 1 (2008)– three chimes suspended from the ceiling– and the latter’s Gong (2007)– a golden gong extending from the wall– which are potentially noisy objects in real life, sink into their silence as art works.
Roelstraete further explores this crystallization of potential sound into muteness in The Bell Show. A reprise to the dynamic melodies of The Gong Show, the Luettgenmeijer installment finds a certain melancholy where the emphasis shifts from the sonic to the physical. In Hadley+Maxwel’s Away, as in ‘For Passing Away is the Figure of this World’ (2010) and The Step When I Forget What I Thought My Calling Was (2011)– an altered wooden table and a stuffed toy shoved under the radiator, the silent bells attached to the works exaggerate the nostalgia expressed in the abused and forgotten objects. Nostalgia is also the subject of Ruth Ewan’s Post Anti-Bell Study II (Rosie) (2011) in which she revisits her earlier work. Unlike the words in Holmqvist’s poem, which is here reprinted on an A4 under the title Sex Sells Gongs And Bells (2011), the words Ewan uses are laden with meaning, attached to the past. However, any spiral of sentimentality that I feel increasingly sucked into by this series of works is soon disrupted. Carsten Holler’s Vertigo-Glocken (Vertigo-Bells) (1997)– a large scale cross-like construction with huge bells attached to the opposite sides of the horizontal pole– starts spinning when activated by the gallery staff. It is not surprising why the work remains switched off when there are no visitors– the spectacle is physically frightening as the bells threaten to snap of the stick that holds them with increased speed and force. Not longer able to remain in the room, I leave wondering how much of the show would survive if they actually did break off. And in the event of this potential destruction, would all the static bells finally ring?
The impact of this gesture alone justifies the narrative choices of Roelstraete, which seemed so out of place to me at first. Despite the apparent deployment of stale institutional methods, his arrangements actually manage to counter the historicist outlooks of the works on show. By making them communicate their inherent nostalgias to each other, Roelstraete keeps the dialogue very much in the present. The story of gongs and bells is just a seduction method, luring the works into a setting where, both together and individually, they can reveal their true essence.