Sounds Like Her: Exhibition Review

‘Sounds Like Her’ – Group exhibition at Gallery Oldham

I think I’ve said this before, I do struggle with sound and video art reviews sometimes. It’s a very different type of art, one of those that a lot of people would say, ‘I don’t get it’. Yet sometimes, sound art can really move you, or give you a new understanding to a piece of work that perhaps a painting couldn’t. Our sense of hearing isn’t something that is usually appealed to when you step into an art gallery. When it is done right, it can really work, but when it isn’t done right, it can be tricky to ‘get’.

I was pretty excited about visiting Gallery Oldham for the first time (yes I know it’s bead that I haven’t been there before). ‘Sounds Like Her’ is a great name for an exhibition, an exhibition that explores ‘what sound can mean in different contexts’ to seven female artists. I am a big fan of work relating to the identity and I love the fact this is a female only exhibition, so I was eager to see it (or hear it).

I was on holiday once in New Zealand, and we went to a Winery come Sculpture park (my dream place). Walking through the woods I could hear this ethereal sounds, it was a choir singing kind of, operatic-like sounds. It was eerie and beautiful all the same. The speakers were hidden in the trees, so depending on where you stood, you could hear a different singer. It was so beautiful, I was in awe of this piece, and it was the perfect setting for this sound installation. That’s what I wanted from ‘Sounds Like Her’.

There was one piece that almost did this for me. Sat in a dark room, I wanted to be consumed by Ain Bailey’s work. There were speakers all around the blacked-out room, with a single bench in the middle. The sounds started and built up, it was like a buzzing bee, somewhere in the distance but getting closer and louder. It was a strange noise, like when your ear-drum goes for a second and you hear a high-pitch buzz. I wanted to feel lost in the room, I wanted to focus on the sounds – but I couldn’t. The room wasn’t made sound-proof, and there was a lot of background noise. Including children playing instruments (I’ll come back to that), the gallery assistant on his walkie talkie and people chatting in background. I really wanted to be consumed by the dark room and the buzzing sounds, but I just couldn’t.

I did like the instruments in the gallery to be fair! These were part of Madeleine Mbida’s work. On the wall are paintings of people dancing, the painting explore ‘Bikutsi music and dance movements’ which comes from her home country of Cameroon. You can see the movement in the paintings, the brushstrokes have rhythm, you can see the movement of their bodies, and the colours reflect those used in the costumes of the dancers. In the gallery space with these artworks, were wooden instruments, some I recognised, like a xylophone, others I hadn’t seen before. They were similar to maracas I guess but had beads and nuts (I think) on the outside. You are encouraged to play these instruments and hear the sounds that they create. That interaction is brilliant as it links the painting and the sound of the music directly, giving you a better, overall understanding of the work.

One other artists work that did fascinate me was that of Christine Sun Kim. She has created two videos showing how she uses sound in her practice. What was fascinating though, was that Christine Sun Kim is deaf, and has been since birth. The videos, seem to be a mix of interviewing her about her practice, as well as showing clips from her performance art. She uses technology that creates sound to create her art. For example, she creates sounds with her mouth and body, these sounds are hooked up to a huge speaker, on that speaker is a board, with paintbrushes loaded with paint. As she makes the sounds, the speaker moves, the paint brushes dance and marks are made on the board. She uses her lack of hearing, to create work about sounds that she can’t hear. Brilliant.

I want to touch on the fact that ‘Sounds Like Her’ showcases only female artists. I wrote an article last year named ‘What about the Women in Art?’ after I read that ‘only 10% of galleries have 50% or more female artists.’ I feel like exhibitions like this are massively important to adjust that figure, yet it is a terrible reality that we need exhibitions of only female artists to combat that. The idea for this exhibition came from the curator Christine Eyene after realising that ‘…although sound art is a practice that has gained ground as a contemporary art form, women’s contributions to the field remain under-acknowledged…’ At the end of this exhibition, Gallery Oldham will be celebrating International Women’s Day by with a closing party, 7th March, 2 – 4pm.

I think this exhibition has been a tricky one to review, for me personally, sound art isn’t really ‘my thing’. But saying that, there is a great mix of female artists here, Sonia Boyce (who’s work we reviewed a couple of years back), Ain Bailey, Elsa M’bala, Madeleine Mbida, Linda O’Keeffe, Magda Stawarska-Beavan and Christine Sun Kim. Together they create varied exhibition, full of colour, installations, videos and sounds. I think it is great that galleries are addressing the imbalance in gender in our art world, and great that they are showing more contemporary art, and different versions of art too. So on that note, well done Gallery Oldham. Hopefully see you all again at the closing party!

Sounds Like Her‘ is on at Gallery Oldham from 14th December – 7th March.

Read the previous review of Sonia Boyce‘s work here.

Please note, this is a commissioned review.

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