from Pindar: Eighth Pythian Ode
Text: Sylvia Wendrock
Translation: Keith David Harris
You can vanish into thin air trying to understand this sentence. It comes from the Epikinae, a collection of odes by the fifth century B.C. Greek poet Pindar. He wrote choral poetry for the winners of the Olympic Games. This was intended as a cantata, a performance with music. The text questions whether winning has any value, in view of the brevity and general nature of human existence, sandwiched as its earthly form is, between a first and a last breath. The sentence provides the spoken sound material for Clara Oppel‘s Breathing Space. The work compresses 5400 loudspeakers on the floor into a curved sign, from which sounds emerge, move along the walls, and overlap and form associations and conversations depending on the listener‘s position. This sentence transcends human existence, penetrates directly to the core of things and opens worlds upon worlds. For as soon as we set the concepts of dream and shadow in motion, we find ourselves in spaces of the imagination, beyond comprehension. And this is where Clara Oppel begins to speak.
All her works are based on the triad of the visual, the acoustic, and the spatial. In perceiving what an object presently tells and in the search for what an object might yet tell, Clara Oppel generates a symbiosis of the intrinsic sounds an object produces and sounds external to the object. In Whispering Tulips, for example, a sea of tulips pleads in a whisper to be set free, or in Sleep Voices an entire hovering tea service preserves the conversations of absent guests. Or does one hear voices trapped in porcelain? The cups mind the places of their users and what they do – the clinking of china is heard. Hovering in an almost dark room, however, the scenery loses its points of reference, the sounds become emancipated, the observer’s orientation fades. He can begin to question his perception in a new way, to investigate phenomena in a new way.
Clara Oppel‘s constant quest for the nuances, colours, and tones inherent in a thing, a word, or a thought, implies an invitation to the viewer to listen more closely, perceive more sensitively, and question again and again the relationship between hearing and seeing. For Oppel, sound art is a language that transcends borders. The absolutely equal treatment of the auditory, visual, and spatial components, leads almost inevitably to an ethereal sound sculpture. Then, as in Mindspace, on the one hand it is memories that arise internally in the recipient through the association with familiar things, so that in this way the recipient also becomes a parameter of the work and a pure, individual spatial experience is made possible. On the other hand, works such as Phones or Bad Spectacles also sometimes challenge to hear with the eyes or see with the ears. At the very least, however, Oppel‘s works lead to a confrontation with transience, for sound is fleeting, and perception and memory are very individual and momentary processes. The decontextualization of sounds and objects, in the way in which, for example in Bit of Meadow, a round piece of meadow contrasts with the floor of a church, points to the confrontation of nature with the Anthropocene and opens up yet another space of meaning: the shadow of humankind.
If cultivating an awareness is what distinguishes humankind from other living creatures, perhaps that means more than merely the distinguishing characteristic which has been maintained so vehemently for centuries now. Becoming really aware surely also means being able to perceive and recognize, or even foresee, the consequences of one‘s actions. To act upon our observations really should be the highest priority, but apparently it’s a hard lesson to learn. In the final analysis, of course, we are the ones who decide how we act – nobody else chooses for us. The question is though, how consciously we do it. Every human action contains shadowy areas – the unconscious. Up until now we have usually closed our eyes to these shadows, which has meant not really taking responsibility. But considering the state of the planet, we can’t really afford to ignore the need to confront these darker forces. The fear of painful, unpleasant experiences and feelings really should be replaced by a new courage and faith in communal interests, and lead to a more integrative, holistic understanding of the world, history, and ourselves. Perhaps Clara Oppel’s sound sculptures can further the process. Through the encounter of the various disciplines, they constantly create intermediate shapes, intermediate times, intermediate spaces. The confrontation with oneself and the environment can begin in meta-spaces like these. This is a way to disseminate critical ideas of our time, grow beyond our individual experience, and make direct contact with our souls.
‘The wind soothes, the dog slumbers.
While the dog sleeps, the wind gently halts
the movement of the atoms,
taking care not to defile the peaceful silence by a quiet whisper,
a soft yet profane sound.‘
from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: The Dream
Clara Oppel‘s mission to explore the nooks and crannies and plumb the depths of the essence of things leads her increasingly away from the object to the line, to the graphic form of painting. The line is an exacting investigator. It focuses attention, bundles what is important, and often expresses the uncomfortable truth that needs to be told. Reduced to such graphic structures as a loudspeaker, lying on the floor, or hanging on the wall, emitting sounds into space, a gradual movement towards the essence of her expression takes place. Oppel‘s loudspeakers always appear in swarms, their voices investigating sequences of events. When they act collectively, the sounds condense, complement, harmonize, or cancel each other out. One can enter these works, and then one begins a journey of insight into really ontological questions: Who are we? Where are we going? Every room has its personality, every thing its sound, which in Clara Oppel‘s work also relate to the external environment. In transient, for example, the communication signals of bats living there are transposed lower, because the human ear can’t physiologically pick up frequencies over 20 kHz. To have their interaction suddenly audible filled the artist with humility. As a translator, she uses the acoustic material of the respective environment, in the case of transient, the casemate and its natural inhabitants. She introduces the processed summer sounds into the winter quarters, and thus expands both their space and their
acoustic impact. In so doing, she provides a forum for the scarcely heard and the barely perceived. In this way, her works also acquire a political dimension. The distinctions between inside and outside, between the individual and the collective, become blurred. It’s a chance to form a new relationship with oneself and renegotiate traditional perceptions. What would happen if people took themselves out of the centre of their own world view?
‘How can one tell an act of the will from a simple image when there is no transmission of sensation?
I could perhaps succeed in upsetting you if I told you some story of a child unjustly punished. As it is, I have involved you in a cyclone, probably without upsetting you in the least. This is no novel experience for any of us. … The physical drama itself cannot touch us until some one points out its spiritual sense.‘
from: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind Sand and Stars
Clara Oppel achieves three-dimensionality by means of sound. She uses a multichannel system – so far she has worked with everything from stereo up to 20 channels – to make movement and shape in space tangible through sound. Sound transforms spatial experience. This leads to acoustic images that can neither be stored nor reproduced. This acousmatic folding and movement of sound in space creates ghosts, as the sounds do not lead to an object source. The visual aspect in Clara Oppel‘s works is reduced more and more. She regards creating a space through sound alone as the supreme discipline.
When sound is the only operative factor, her work gets closer and closer to the nonphysical – certainly an idea worth
pursuing, not the least in terms of sustainability. In fact of course, even now Oppel’s works can seldom be reproduced. She prefers to use materials and loudspeakers several times, and reuses them in different ways in order to recycle them, at least at a rudimentary level.
Without a reference to a preexisting object, sounds become beings, spirits. Presences get personified and cause irritation, because people use acoustical data to coordinate movement in space. And besides that, the human ear is responsible for the sense of equilibrium. Unfortunately humankind has long been out of balance with itself and in dealing with the world. Can it be that accurate hearing supports this indispensible process of achieving a balance between self-awareness and an understanding of the world? But at what point can one really call oneself a hearing person? Delicate and refined sounds – high-pitched or soft – are often no longer even noticed because time is too short to hear. Silence too is something for people who can hear. The ultimate force is silence, sound is condensed to a rustle. The only way for humankind to distinguish between old and new, familiar and foreign, the known and the unknown, is through the human species itself, in its very personal inner space, the spirit.