michael j. morris

Transcendent Siren
26 February, 2009, 10:50 pm
Filed under: art, inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Tonight I witnessed Ray Lee’s sound installation Siren at the Wexner. I have to say that I feel spoiled by the Wexner these last few weeks. Tonight’s experience was transcendent, last week’s performance of Japan Dance Now was deeply inspiring, and the week before that was Batsheva. So many good things.

I think it is probably best to begin my description of tonight’s installation by sharing this video. It can in no way serve as a substitution for the actual piece, but the visual aid saves paragraphs of wordy descriptions:

Among many other experiences I had with this work, it was most of all an exercise in subtlety and nuance, a gradual crescendo and decrescendo of sound and light. Two performers slowly and deliberately activated the sound devices used in the piece, first just emitting different tones (in stillness) with the small LED lights at either end, then activating their motion (slow, steady rotations), gradually increasing their speed until it came to a point of whirling, the lights now leaving traces in space, the sound climaxing in drones and overtones and ebbs and flows in the space. All the lights in the space (other than the small LED lights) were turned out, and we were left in a dark space surrounded by red spatial orbits and the droning symphony. Then the process was reversed (still in the dark), slowing the devices to the point of stillness, then one by one removing the tones from the space. When the last machine was turned off, the silence rushed into the previously occupied space so densely that I felt suspended in it.

There were so many factors involved in this 45 minute performance/demonstration/experience. One aspect that was acute for me was the participation of the audience in the overall soundscape. We were asked to remain silent throughout the piece, but were invited to move around the space in order to experience the sound/visual landscape from and variety of vantage points. This act of motion, of moving bodies around me as I moved or remained stationary, was a more subtle layer in the experience of the aural symphony, as the way in which the sound moved through the space and encountered me was shifted constantly by the participation of these moving bodies.

I couldn’t help but relate this experience to the choreography I am premiering two weeks from today entitled “About.” The basic formal structure of my choreography is slow circular pathways in space with a constantly shifting axis point. The basic idea is that the choreography is not a demonstration of a thing itself, but an implication of a thing by this movement about/around it. This is a metaphor for the subjective nature of experience and the elusiveness of the truly objective reality.
As soon as the machines in Lee’s piece were sped up and I began to see the circular traces of light in the air (only amplified when all other light was removed from the space), I was entranced by the idea of the implication of the invisible, and how we might come to know of a thing by that which moves about it.

In the program notes, it is offered that “Lee’s work investigates his fascination with the hidden world of electro-magnetic radiation and in particular how sound can be used as evidence of invisible phenomena. He is interested in the way that science and philosophy represent the universe, and his work questions the orthodoxies that emerge, and submerge, according to the currently fashionable trends. He creates spinning, whirling, and pendulous sound installations that explore ‘circles of ether,’ the invisible forces that surround us.”

This was almost precisely my experience of this work.

I’m sure I have more to say on the subject, but for now I will conclude with a recommendation that if at all possible, you make an effort to experience this work.


Indeed, I did awake with further ideas/clarity, and felt compelled to jot them down over my morning coffee.

I felt that on some level of meaning-making, I experienced the work in reference to the “age of panic” in which we sometimes find ourselves. In a culture that has become familiar with terror (some valid, some of our own imagination), the crescendo and decrescendo of these “sirens” brought to mind mounting and waning panic, the sounds of sirens, the whir of helicopter blades, the mass of machines almost like an army. It was certainly a connotation, but one which I felt was worth mentioning.

Akin to this connotation was the reality of the danger of the piece. As the performers adjusted the speed and tones of the machines, they did so by navigating through the spaces in between them, avoiding the whirring arms that carries immense destructive force. This overwhelming experience of beauty was perhaps even deepened by this awareness of its danger, the physical power this installation possessed, in addition to the aesthetic and ethereal.

I pause briefly to consider the title, Siren. In our contemporary association, words that come to mind are “warning,” “rescue,” “assistance.” But in the mythological association, sirens were a drawing towards danger, a seductive beauty that led inevitably to destruction. This is perhaps worth further speculation.

The performers themselves and the manner in which they carried out their tasks offered another layer to these constructed meanings. Their careful, steady, calm, and resolute motion through the machinery felt like a statement for humanity in the context of an age of panic, perhaps a prescription for a possible mode of behavior, a calm amidst a storm. Going deeper into my own meaning-making, I would acknowledge that I also was very aware of the amount of control that these performers carried. It was their actions that brought everything to pass, from the initiations of the sound, the rotations of the machines (instruments?), the acceleration of the action, the plunge into darkness, and the reversal of these actions. Witnessing this, I felt as if I was being told that this is all of our own making, this world in which we live, the beauty, the panic, and the destructive force. There may be invisible forces at work, but we are active co-creators with them.

I also cannot get away from this idea of climax. Over the course of 45 minutes, the piece built gradually almost to a point of ecstasy (there were even couples making out in the darkness), then gradually settling from that high. The metaphors for climax are endless, but I mention it because of implications it held for me. In the field of beauty, panic, and danger, it seemed to unify this all into a plane of almost erotic ecstasy, the reaching towards a climax, and the successive move towards calm. It also added a more fundamental truth, that most ascensions are followed be descensions. Which brings to mind waves. Waves could be one of the most prominent metaphors (the rise and fall) and materials in the work (sound waves, light waves, the oscillations in the sound due to the rotations of the instruments, the overall rise and fall, even the shifting tides of the audience moving through the space).

Again, I’ll conclude my contemplations with a recommendation that you experience this work if you have the opportunity.


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