Sunday, 2 January 2011

Rie Nakajima - I can hear it

Soundfjord is a pretty striking place. As I stumbled through seven sisters I wasn't prepared for its utmost spareness - a small white room and two speakers. It seemed as if Nellie (who showed me in) was inviting me into her flat.

The piece on show there needed nothing else really. Rie Nakajima exhibits a recording of blind piano tuner Ken Bodden feeling and hearing his way around the inside of a piano. The absolute tactility of the sound belies any need for visual impulse. We hear the rattle and clicks of his tuning ratchet as it attacks and caresses the pegs; the muffled sound of children outside (unclear whether recorded or real); occasional breaths and sighs and the movement of fabric; and all the while this incessantly dry but peculiarly gentle striking of notes.

I've heard pianos being tuned before (I usually listen to the tuner when he does mine in my room in college), but there was something different at work here. Obviously, through recording and exhibition, the nature of the activity is changed somewhat. If, for example, my own piano is being tuned, there is a definite sense of social relation. The piano tuner is undertaking a task on my behalf, and with me listening is perhaps interested in getting it done quickly; conversely he maintains a certain amount of power, having the monopoly of skill in the situation. Nakajima's work, on the other hand, attempts to remove whatever social obligation might be otherwise present. It's not clear who Bodden is tuning 'for' - either for the purposes of Nakajima's recording; or else to just exercise his own skill. In many ways, Bodden's skill, and his pleasure in exercising it (and our pleasure in his pleasure, as it were) is the central aesthetic aspect of the piece.

Beyond that, from the point of view of Nakajima, the piece is almost a 'readymade' - something like a field recording of a human being. The functional nature of the piano tuning removes it initially from artistic climes, it is a 'craft' activity. It achieves the quantity of art through recording and exhibition. Nakajima exhibits a function (or a process-as-function) as object. The ending point of the process (its 'purpose') is redefined. Where the piano tuner is originally attempting to produce an 'in-tune-piano' (as I'm sure Bodden is doing in this case), Nakajima undermines this skill-function. The 'in-tune-piano' is the MacGuffin - it drives the process but is vacant from the object as-it-is when exhibited.

All of this is pretty illuminating when generalised, I think - because it shows what an enormous effect (aesthetically-contextually) the simple act of recording can have. It can redistribute the weight of an action - whatever that action was directed 'towards'; the action can find itself directed towards something quite different. In this sense recording can undermine as much as it can document; the status of the recorded activity is permanently changed ('cooked', even, to invoke Levi-Strauss). Though Nakajima's work is undoubtedly beautiful in depicting Bodden's tactile activity, there is a definite sense of unintentional betrayal. What does Bodden hear when he hears his process-as-function depicted as object? Does it, or might it lose its integrity? Like Kleist's youth in On the Marionette Theatre, who, when informed of the beauty of an action, might Bodden fail to reproduce his piano-tuning in its original, innocent virtuosity?

Like all good pieces, apart from being rather beautiful aesthetically, this one raises a good few questions. It's running until the 29th Jan.

EDIT: There's also a podcast documenting this exhibition here: