There is music to be revealed in every object, image or place.1 Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Untitled (Series #3), Rice University Gallery, Houston TX, 2001, p. 8.
One hundred and more white porcelain bowls float on the surface of an expansive, intensely blue pool. The water is heated to optimise the porcelain’s acoustic resonance. Swept along by submarine currents, the floating crockery circulates gently, colliding as percussive instruments which create a resonant, chiming soundscape.
The title of clinamen, 2013, by French artist and composer Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, refers to the curve and swerve of celestial configurations; to the arc of the sun and the unpredictable motion of atoms moving through and colliding in space. This aquatic, acoustic installation set within the forecourt of the National Gallery of Victoria fills the space with colour and sound and creates an uncertain and changing form of chamber music, whose aleatory form is echoed aurally and pictorially.
In addition to its acoustic properties, porcelain is known for its hardness, whiteness and translucency, and clinamen’s sonic register is accompanied by a commensurate visual element. Set against a spherical, celestial blue ground, the ceramic vessels of varying scale create tonal arrangements and cosmological patterns, perceptible to both eye and ear, which converge and disperse according to laws of nature and the artist’s design. The music is all the time the same, and all the time different – circulating in space and extending through time.
As they move about the pool, the white vessels create a visible score for the viewer, translating the aural into the pictorial, establishing a visual equivalent to the act of listening. Having set in train this free-floating score, unpredictable patterns emerge, shifting the role of the artist from composer to listener; a listener who encounters – as if for the first time – the evolving sound and shape of an artistic work which is no longer fixed, but exists as an autonomous, complex and ever-changing world.
Boursier-Mougenot is well known for creating large-scale acoustic installations and environments that place art and nature in playful dialogue and confrontation to produce new forms of art and music. He trained at the Conservatory for Music in Nice, and initially worked as a composer for avant-garde music and theatre before turning to the long-duration sound installations that he has presented in galleries internationally for almost two decades.
The shift from the specific and concise format of musical composition and performance to the temporal, extended duration of installation and exhibition practice opened Bousier-Mougenot’s work to sculptural, performative and avant-garde music traditions. His use of unorthodox musical instruments promotes chance and indeterminacy in musical composition, albeit within highly controlled environments, and specific patterns have emerged in his work: the spatial and sculptural elaboration of sound and music; the creation of social, technical and organic systems to generate durational musical scores; and the active involvement of the viewer in the visual perception of sonic work, encouraging a spatial, multi-sensory experience.
With clinamen, Boursier-Mougenot continues his interest in revealing the musical potential of objects and materials not produced for their acoustic properties.2 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Emilie Gouband, ‘A Q&A with Marcel Duchamp Prize finalist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’, 2 Sept. 2010, Blouin Artinfo, <http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/35689/a-qa-with-marcel-duchamp-prize-finalist-cleste-boursier-mougenot/?page=2>, accessed 28 April 2013. The artist convenes elemental forms – water, clay (in the form of porcelain ceramics), electricity and air – which are transformed for musical emphasis. Elegant and classical in form, the choreography of earth, water, electricity and sky allows for elaborate patterns and complexity to emerge, as if generated by nature, beyond the control of the artist’s will or intentionality. As Boursier-Mougenot states, ‘The work is a way to do some thinking about complexity in real time. For me, complexity is all around us; it is life’.3 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Art & Music: Search for New Synaesthesia, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Tokyo, 2012, p. 60.
The potential for Boursier-Mougenot’s complex ecosystems to unleash free-form acoustic soundscapes is realised in an ongoing, related work, From hear to ear, 1999–, in which the exhibition space is turned into an aviary in which electric and bass guitars, plugged into amplifiers, serve as perches for a community of zebra finches. Viewers were invited enter and participate in this sonic ecosystem, ‘designed to make the biorhythms and modulations of living phenomena perceptible’.4 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Gouband.
As Gilda Williams observed of the work installed at The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 2010:
The birds flew freely, inadvertently making music when they landed on the horizontal strings, offering random plucking, brusque staccato riffs, or maybe a thunderous power-rock chord when a small flock of them settled at once on an instrument’s neck.5 Gilda Williams, ‘Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’, Artforum, Summer 2010, p. 364.
Boursier-Mougenot’s works explore a dramatic threshold between nature and design, control and unpredictability, architecture and the random event. clinamen and From hear to ear both play with tensions between composition and improvisation, between the idea of the score and the impetus of free music. Drawing on natural and technological systems, these works produce ‘unintentional music that results from situations, actions, and logical systems that are foreign to music, whether they be animal, machine or human’.6 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Gouband.
Designed specifically by Boursier-Mougenot for the atrium space of Federation Court at NGV International, clinamen is framed by a perimeter bench which welcomes the audience as a collective. This space, in which free-floating patterns circulate, converge and disperse, lures the viewer/listener in, sharpening our perception of musical composition, the nature of things and the complex rhythms of life and cosmos.
clinamen channels the spirits of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, free jazz and Fluxus and might be likened to an outsized rotorelief, a Zen orchestra without musicians, a musical score composed of found objects, or a chance-driven performance event. Its beguiling unification of colour, sound and space, and investigation of sonic materiality, patterns and resonance offers a multi-sensory, synaesthetic experience at the same time as creating a social space for reflection, wonder and contemplation.
1 Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Untitled (Series #3), Rice University Gallery, Houston TX, 2001, p. 8.
2 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Emilie Gouband, ‘A Q&A with Marcel Duchamp Prize finalist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’, 2 Sept. 2010, Blouin Artinfo, <http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/35689/a-qa-with-marcel-duchamp-prize-finalist-cleste-boursier-mougenot/?page=2>, accessed 28 April 2013.
3 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Art & Music: Search for New Synaesthesia, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Tokyo, 2012, p. 60.
4 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Gouband.
5 Gilda Williams, ‘Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’, Artforum, Summer 2010, p. 364
6 Boursier-Mougenot, quoted in Gouband.