At the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Sound Shapes Art

With works by Glenn Ligon and Mika Tajima, a new exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum explores the materiality of sound and its multisensory reach.

“Skin Tight (Thuglife II)&rdqo; (1995) by Glenn Ligon in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Photography by Carlos Avendaño

Sound waves weave—through the air, around each other, into your ears, throughout your memories. The warp and weft of cotton or linen is better associated with Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, but “Sonic Presence (or Absence),” its new show curated by Alec Unkovic (until Jan. 7), listens for what happens when artists approach sound as something not only to play, but play with. 

Unkovic explored the institution’s vast archives, securing a few loaned works along the way. “We’re looking for pieces that are not just objects as sound works,” he says, “but also ones that imply or evoke sound.” Glenn Ligon sets the tone: Skin Tight (1995/2003) hangs from chains eight punching bags, their fabric printed with portraits of Ice Cube and quotes from Muhammad Ali, in a space defined by bespoke wallcovering. It’s almost impossible not to hear the sound of fists.

“Soundsuit” (2009) by Nick Cave

Undeniably audible are recordings of instruments made by Guillermo Galindo from objects discarded by migrants—and government officials—on the Mexico-U.S. border. The instruments, echoing both Harry Partch’s itinerant musical craft and the repurposing grandeur of El Anatsui, are humble wonders. “They’re created from the traces of people left behind,” Unkovic says. “The objects are not precious, but as individual components speak to the lived experience of those who didn’t have the luxury of discarding them with intention.” 

A towering Sound Suit (2009) of stuffed animals from Nick Cave is precious, as are some final works by late hometown hero Terry Adkins, whose Aviarium (2014) freezes bird vocalizations into wall sculptures of cymbals and aluminum rods. Other works tackle the conceptual, like Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio’s Swallow (2016), in which viewers sit on a prototype conjoined chair and listen to a description of a dance the pair made involving the quaffing and regurgitating of a ten-foot piece of fabric. Less abject, depending upon how one activates the bathroom in which it’s installed, is Peter Spector’s Specter (2010), a mixed-media light whose hue, brightness, and solidity of lightbeam changes according to the sounds it hears.

“Negative Entropy” (2012) by Mika Tajima

The show’s most fascinating work encompasses all the above strategies. In her series Negative Entropy (2012), Mika Tajima made audio recordings of nearby factories like the Caledonian Dye Works textile mill. She translated the sound waves into buzzy textiles, then built acoustic panels from fabric. Sound becomes sight, touch, a buffer of its original source—and a building product perfect for a museum auditorium. “Sound can be an ephemeral experience,” Unkovic says, “but the artists here capture it in a permanent way.”

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