August 04, 2012

Icy Resolution


I received an interesting comment left by “anonymous” in response to my blog post about Ben Gwilliam's  molto semplice e cantabile 

“A number of artists have made records out of ice. A more interesting and 
resolved conceptual idea being Katie Paterson”.


Until this I was unfamiliar with Katie Paterson and I am grateful to the commenter for drawing my attention to her; she has some really interesting work including a piece called Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull which according to her website is made up of sound recordings from three glaciers in Iceland, pressed into three records, cast, and frozen with the meltwater from each of these glaciers, and played on three turntables until they completely melt. The records were played once and now exist as three digital films. The turntables begin playing together, and for the first ten minutes as the needles trace their way around, the sounds from each glacier merge in and out with the sounds the ice itself creates. The needle catches on the last loop, and the records play for nearly two hours, until completely melted.


Paterson’s ice work is indeed interesting but is it more interesting or more resolved that Gwilliam’s? I find both of them interesting conceptually (I haven’t heard Paterson’s ice melting); but the word ‘resolved’ fascinates me. Unresolved can be a faint but damning artistic criticism and to me resolution in a work relates to the degree to which its conceptual arch completes the idea of the work itself. Can one work be more conceptually complete than another? Of course. 

A comparison between Gwilliam and Paterson feels very much like some of the comparisons in the Text Festival  between the work of one language artist and another, who seem to be engaged in very similar enquiries but coming from very different traditions/artforms. Gwilliam’s work is located in a sound art tradition while Paterson is a conceptual artist engaged primarily in questions of knowledge and science. I see these artists as doing something different and valid with ice.

Although I wouldn’t make this point with any serious intent, but one could argue that Gwilliam’s is more resolved than Paterson’s because the latter’s final resolution is in digital films of the discs melting, whereas the former’s return to the vinyl form from which the sound originated.

However that is spurious because the works are doing something different. Paterson’s is a pure commentary on glacial melting and climate change so its resolution in terms of water resides in the one-way process of its melting, completed in digital documentation –  I appreciate it but I find its resolution linear. Gwilliam includes the process and the performative: molto semplice e cantabile was performed twice which immediately places it in a different (music) space; water is added in the form of spray onto the discs, the 'music' was edited, the artist was hands on, active in the creation of sound and melting. I find Gwilliam’s more interesting and more complex - paradoxical since its title translates as:  “very simple and lyrical” - precisely because it is circular, replicating in its structure the physics of the anomalous expansion of water which creates, destroys and metaphorically creates it. 

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