Clara Oppel: Breathing Space – Opening of the Exhibition in the Kunstverein in Marburg (Germany), 2015. 

Text: Friedrich W. Block
Translation: Keith David Harris

‘How can you enjoy a world which you can‘t see when you close your eyes?‘ (Fariduddin Attar)

Ladies and Gentlemen, close your eyes, and you’ll see – hear, rather – how a thousand birds take flight. They soar through the valleys of sufferings and passions: desire, love, knowledge, abstinence, unity, dismay, dissolution. Only thirty birds manage to get to the end of the world, where mountains surround them, there, where the wise bird king lives, a hoopoe called Simorgh. ‘Si morgh‘ – the name itself means ‘thirty birds‘. Now, having reached the destination, the birds realise that they have in fact been searching all along for themselves – and their quest has now been rewarded. 

Eyes wide shut! You see before you four sheets of parchment, as light as a feather, and through them shine delicate electric wires, ending in piezo swabs – probably around thirty of them. They emit a veritable concert of fine high-pitched sounds, like birdsong. They are extracted from the recorded Bird Conversations written by the Persian Sufi poet,  Fariduddin Attar, in the year 1177. The title of this sound poem by Clara Oppel is Simorgh – Thirty Birds.

In the beginning was the sound. The world is a universal sound chamber. Only recently has the echo of that beginning, which certainly really isn’t a beginning, been recorded, in the microwave frequencies of cosmic background radiation. At the beginning of the system of recording auditory phenomena, however, a good 200 years ago, was a pencil, which transmitted the vibrations of a tuning fork – a wave recorder.

This led directly to the phonograph, patented in 1877 by Thomas Alva Edison as a so-called talking machine. This name points to the fact that it was first and foremost voices which were recorded, stored, processed and played back over loudspeakers. Voices – the most personal of all things which humans, like birds, can produce tonally – intermixed with the echo of the Big Bang.

Sounds both natural and cultivated, drawing, voice, language, recording them technically, recombining them as a composition, presenting them rhythmically both within and as space – these are the parameters which make up the unique sound art of Clara Oppel, which from today is being shown in the Marburg Kunstverein in the biggest exhibition she has had so far. I’d like to congratulate the artist, the Kunstverein, and also us, the general public, on the exhibition.

The fact that visual and auditory elements are so closely and fascinatingly combined in this exhibition can be understood in the context of the artist’s career, which began with drawing, painting, and sculpture. Her exploration of space, her endeavour to penetrate it inside and outside, both intrinsically and in its context, soon led her to sound, whereby pictorial techniques are still present. This in turn illustrates the very history of sound art, which began with the avant-gardish breaking down of barriers between respective art genres and developed into a multifacetted programme. This is what people, including the futuristic painter Luigi Russolo, called for, the latter as early as 1913, in his manifesto, The Art of Noises. He also began to answer this demand with numerous sound objects and experiments.

On two floors, Clara Oppel exhibits here nine works from two decades: old alongside new, large room installations next to smaller objects and sculptures. 

She explains: ‘I use sounds, noises and speech as material. In particular, I’m concerned with the ordering and movement of acoustical signals in space. In so doing, I imbue almost immaterial sound with a physical embodiment, I produce synaesthetic situations. Sound and picture relate to each other above and beyond the optical level and spatial dimension in the acoustical plane leading to perception.’

Consider for example the large installation Breathing Space on the upper level of the Marburg Kunstverein. An incredible 5,400 loudspeakers are arranged here into a ribbon across the floor. By means of an eight-channel system, eight sound fields consisting of 675 loudspeakers respectively are created, and the sound material moves rhythmically through them. The sound itself is made up of electronically abstracted speech, mixed with both actual sounds from the environment and artificial ones.

Or would it be better to say that what we experience here is a choreography of sounds which dance, run, and hop through space, bump into each other, or hold still, so that it is the combination of our own hearing and seeing and our own movement which itself creates the space? 

The sound movement is horizontal and vertical, and not merely parallel to the floor, but rather pillars of sound from loudspeakers pointing upwards and reflected back downwards. So there are two intersecting spatial axes, horizontal and vertical, which also lend the work constructivist elements as in concrete art.

I immerse myself completely in this sound atmosphere, its movement back and forth, the very breath of the room, which I myself am part of, because I am a resonance body and my breath mingles with the installation like its shadow – ‘solang mund geht auf und zu / solang luft geht aus und ein‘ (Ernst Jandl) … (‘as long as the mouth opens and shuts / as long as air goes in and out’).

‘People are a shadow’s dream‘ – the artist broke the sound components of this sentence into minute fragments which then became the speech sound material for Breathing Space.

This sentence has fascinated many great minds before her, people like Goethe or Hölderlin, who translated it from the original Greek in his adaptation of Pindar’s 8th Pythian Ode from the middle of the 5th century B.C. The ode is dedicated to a victorious Olympic athlete and reflects upon the transience of even such a great success. So what is a human being? What are we between the first and last breaths we take? Afterwards, before, in between? Suspended perhaps in a universal sound space? 

I met Clara Oppel in 2009, and invited her to create a work for the language art exhibition POESIS, with language games, in the Akademie der Künste Berlin. The result was the work transeunt, with 1200 loudspeakers over four channels. It was completely unique as it was developed expressly for the space at the Academy. The sound material consisted of autobiographical utterances by numerous real voices, which moved throughout the Academy space. It was a wonderful contribution to poetry as I understand it. I see Clara Oppel’s speech-based sound art as an example par excellence of poetry as an independent art form between other arts. There are two essential reasons for this:

Her way of working with language reflects back on a synaes-thetic and intermedial Gesamtkunst, which is already poten-tially extant in the verbi-voco-visual possibilities of language. 

At the same time, this happens with her in a way, which calls to mind the literal sense of the concept of poetry. She alerts us to the moment when something comes into being, the Poesis between form and not-form, that moment which we would so much like to prolong. 

Because not-form too, emptiness, all-embracing stillness is also always present in Clara Oppel’s work, inasmuch as it enables sound, even if it’s only tiny and bad loudspeaker spectacles, with which one can neither see nor hear – unless…

As the 2000 year old Indian poem expresses it:

‘Form is empty,
Emptiness is form, 
Form is nothing except emptiness, 
Emptiness is likewise nothing else but form.‘

Or John Cage in his Lecture on Nothing:
‘Our poetry now / is the realization / that we possess / nothing / Anything / therefore / is a delight‘