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And as he gazed, his dizzy brain spun fast,
And down he sunk; and as he sunk, the sand
Swam round and round, and all his senses pass’d…..

–  Byron, Don Juan


We know sand’s complicity with mirage.  At the seashore scrawled vows are washed to a smear.  In the dunes paths disappear by wind, no tread surely retraceable, while chimeras hotly shimmer at the horizon.  The ceaseless formation and de-formation of sand—its surfaces and volumes, clumps and spillage, weathers and voices—compose Sabulation (2010), a sound and video installation by Danish artist Jacob Kirkegaard shown at Diapason, New York this February, along with two companion works: photo-suite Nagaras (2009) and single-channel video Desert Slide (2010).

Shivering into geometries on a Chladni plate, sand becomes the very image of sound, yet in itself may seem as silent as the very eternity its time-worn state approximates.[1] Following in the sinking footsteps of many before him, Kirkegaard sought out the sand’s own songs.  “Singing sands” have intrigued wayfarers throughout the centuries, inspiring moments of crypto-geology and sonic simile in numerous travelogues.  Marco Polo crossing the Gobi, most famously, wrote of “spirits of the desert” who “fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms,” causing stragglers to lose their wits and way.[2] Charles Darwin in Latin America noted a “roar[ing]” sand-hill in Chile and a “chirping” beach in Brazil.[3] Among 19th and early 20th century accounts Kirkegaard excerpted for the show (via plain-text slideshow on a desktop screen, unobtrusively at the show’s far end), the sound is compared variously to a barking dog, buzz-saw, cello melody, faraway thunder, subterranean bell, even Aeolian harp—one fabled music evoking another.[4]

A prolific and versatile artist focusing on acoustic phenomena, Kirkegaard has recorded sources as diverse as Icelandic geysers, the Zone of Exclusion at Chernobyl, guests asleep in a Berlin hotel, iron bridges along the Rhine and Daugava rivers, and torn ribbons of cassette tape found in the streets of Havana.  The projects shown at Diapason took him to the deserts of Oman, where he registered sand vibrations with a buried accelerometer.  The result, Sabulation, may be the first artwork to capture and present the singing sands to such hypnotic yet disorienting impact.[5] Speakers girding a dim, 25-square-foot carpeted listening room issue an audio feed by turns sibilant, sirenic, and quaking, while a single-channel, dual-screen projection looping a 30-minute video shows black-and-white images of metamorphosing sand framed at indiscernible scale.  Are these shots microscopic, sand falling into a crater no larger than the gyre of a loose fist?  Are they aerial, above a planet where sands run fluvial?  From what height, at what angle, are we seeing these sandy planes?  What causes the sand to move so steadily and ceaselessly?  And is that same cause generating the sound, or is sound itself the cause?  There is no way of knowing, but one can’t help but watch, as the shifting sounds boom and tremor through to the chest-cavity, and as sand patterns—perhaps inches from our noses, perhaps a long parachute drop below—seem to burn into the film material itself.

Aurally and visually, Sabulation fluctuates between otherworldly and creaturely, threatening and sensuous valences.  The desire to identify the content of this sensory flux is strong—especially its auditory component—but one never arrives at recognition, only slippery resemblances.  Sometimes the sound recalls strong wind through dense trees; sometimes the long-arc, fluting echoes of whale songs.  Sometimes it can almost pass for the sharp crash and ebb of tides—but for emitting a hiss that suggests a nature more alien, if nature at all.  Whatever they might be like, the sounds are always sufficiently unlike—unlike, say, the sirocco or simoom one might logically infer—and so keep us in the dark as to what it is we’re so affected by.  When another stretch of audio produces a drone mistakable for a small aircraft directly overhead, the mistake so vividly, immediately passes for truth that it seems not only to solve what’s heard, but also the cause of what’s seen.  Convinced of this definitive wind-source off-screen, we might even start looking more intently—for the faintest signs of propeller shadows upon the sand, or patterns matching some latent rhythm within the drone.  Further changes in tone and frequency thoroughly dislodge the conviction, but they do so only gradually, against epistemological resistance.  Lures to wayward certainty, the “extraordinary illusions” Polo described are fully upon us.[6] Our interpretive faculties are usurped by the work’s physical penetration: the sound palpably vibrates through the listener’s entire body, not only tunneling into the ear.

Morphing hypnotically, uninterrupted, while emanating a thermal energy (the projections are the gray room’s main light-source), the images only intensify our disorientation.  Sand-forms weep like bleeds of paint, or pour friction-free; fall into elegant pleats, or seem to curd or cake, with craggy ridges looking as encrusted as Jay DeFeo’s The Rose.  All intactness is illusion: before long, any momentary shape is invariably melted away and swept out of the frame by nearby flow.  The longer looked at, the more illusory the image itself seems to grow, as if an invisible hand were scratching or poking at the surface.  And yet, what surface?  As if illustrating a puzzle in topological math, the layers coat to expose, sand washing away sand—sand thus becoming most like what it is most unlike: liquid rather than solid, unnameable as unitary noun.  Effortlessly displaceable, with its soft, feline give, sand matter comes to embody mutability itself.

Because its give is both lifelessness and incessancy—animation without sentience—there is something quietly horrific in this ceaseless shape-shifting.  By the sheer force of its torrential sound and movement, the sand seems life-possessed, crackling with heat.  Aptly, the artist’s brief blurb for the work quotes Kobe Abe’s eerie 1962 novel The Woman in the Dunes:

He tried thinking of something else.  When he closed his eyes, a number of long lines, flowing like sighs, came floating toward him.  They were ripples of sand moving over the dunes.  The dunes were probably burned onto his retina because he had been gazing steadily at them for some twelve hours.  The same sand current had swallowed up and destroyed flourishing cities and great empires.  They called it the ‘sabulation’ of the Roman Empire….

Abe’s story portrays an entomologist who wanders into a desert village and finds himself trapped in a sand pit, at the house of a widow. The man must keep shoveling out buckets of ever-replenishing sand, or else died buried as had the woman’s husband and child.  In what is surely the greatest desert film ever made—out-sanding Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient, even Dune—Hiroshi Teshigahara’s terrifying 1964 screen adaptation, too, captures bizarre images of sand as it descends in a creeping sheet in the night, for instance, or avalanches down the pit-walls when the man futilely tries to clamber his way up.  (Toru Takemitsu’s restrained, disquieting score of distorted violin glissandos and percussive jolts does the bizarreness justice.)  Just as the trapped man starts dreaming of wavy ribs of sand, and out of thirst hallucinates light-webbed water when seeing only sand, so we, by the middle of that film, are conditioned to see a sandy pattern even during a close-up on soap-lathered skin.  Gazing at Sabulation for some time, we share the retinal burn Abe imagines for his protagonist—the shifting “ripples of sand” a persistent afterimage.

Perhaps most hauntingly of all, the natural chiaroscuro of Sabulation’s images, in unnatural grayscale, evokes the paradoxical textures of film itself: its granular membrane, mysterious flow, material existence subject to deterioration.  Very gradually—akin to the gradual “swallowing” and “destruction” of sand working at Roman cities—the filmed object of Sabulation starts to disappear, as sand’s disintegrating furrows transmute into film texture as such—image molting as medium, medium in turn melting, though only to uncover more, in an endless peeling of surface.  Wearing down and wearing away, sand inevitably provokes Heraclitean thoughts on mutability in time.  “Earth sifts over things,” as Annie Dillard has observed, “If you stay still, earth buries you, ready or not. […]  On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial.”[7]

The show’s two additional works, mounted outside the listening room in Diapason’s main space, complement rather than resolve Sabulation’s cognitive dissonance.  Scale is likewise indeterminate in the series of eight color photographs that comprise Nagaras, taken during sand-songs.  Against pale, low combed ridges stretching into the distance, wind-whipped sand forms in the foreground—some with fiery inner shadows—resemble by turns tousled lion’s mane, dusty founts, and hoary, shape-shifting titan.  Stormy, Turner-esque, these images, too, have an immediate, almost aural impact.[8] Sureness of scale returns only in Desert Slide, where the artist and his friend J. G. Thirlwell slowly slide down dunes, trudge back up to slide down again, and so on, while lightly saddled by recording equipment.[9] This video offers its own process-art poetics of bright desert heat, funny friction, and mumbly, humdrum perseverance, far more than any explanatory making-of.  Explanation, after all, is just what Sabulation withholds.

A relatively young practice with a recent growth spurt, “sound art” as a more or less distinct art form has generated a particularly vigorous round of debate of late, occasioned by Seth Kim-Cohen’s manifesto In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (2009).  Much sound art, Kim-Cohen diagnoses, attributes to sound a channel of experience that is invisible yet direct, immersive and secretly authentic.  To hold sound sacred in this way, he cautions, can mystify it as natural truth—a sort of Klang-an-sich—rather than recognizing (and as artists deploying) it as a medium of socially contingent, ideologically woven meanings.  Helming the counter-position, Christoph Cox champions sound art’s potential precisely for “short-circuit[ing] the aesthetics of representation and mediation,” and sees Kim-Cohen’s argument as itself built on a needlessly rigid, essentializing distinction between earth and world, immediacy and mediation.[10] A central case study in their debate has been Doug Aitken’s Sonic Pavilion (2009), a mile-deep hole about the diameter of a large dinner plate, dug into a Brazilian hilltop, installed with microphones, and encased in a spacious, squat temple-like glass cylinder amid the elysian grounds of iron-ore magnate Bernardo Paz’s Inhotim art park.  For Kim-Cohen, the work’s claim to listen in on the earth “equates the facticity of sensory experience with truth,” whereas “It is the worldly, rather than the earthly”—the work’s own apparatus of context, rather than the earth’s noumenal transmission—“that presents the possibility of meaning.”[11] For Cox, on the other hand, Aitken’s work bespeaks “a philosophical naturalism that insists human beings are of a piece with the natural world we inhabit,” while “affirm[ing] an aesthetics of force, flux, and resonance.”[12]

While these theoretical positions offer an exciting glimpse into a critical discourse in the making, a work like Sabulation may both engage and dissolve the terms of the debate.[13] The sands Kirkegaard records certainly belong to “the natural world we inhabit,” but unrecognizably so.  Delivered up by technology, the work’s “aesthetics of force, flux, and resonance” are also transformed and augmented thereby, revealing uncanny correspondences between organic and machinic sounds, sand-images and sand-like medium, while the seen and the heard themselves correspond only uncertainly.  Under no pretense of having bottled up an authentic memento of place—as found conches (we dream) carry the sounds of their sea-swept home within themselves—the work offers instead an experience that by its very intimacy estranges as much as it captivates.  With its built-in disjunction between sound and image, the work denaturalizes the act of recording nature even as it tunes deeply in to a hermetic earth that is always still richer, stranger than we might imagine.

[1] Acoustics pioneer Ernst Chladni (1756-1827) demonstrated the material effects of sound by dusting a metal plate with sand and vibrating the plate to resonance with a violin bow.  Lacy, symmetrical nodal patterns would emerge on the surface, reconfiguring according to frequency changes, for an altogether magical effect.  Such sound visualization gave birth to the science of cymatics.

[2] Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. William Marsden, ed. Manuel Komroff (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 74.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (New York: Random House, 2001), 322.

[4] Covering nearly as wide a range, incidentally, “The Singing Sands” episode in the now-lost, fan-reconstructed Marco Polo series from the early years of Doctor Who describes the phenomenon as “a clashing of drums and cymbals” or “a familiar voice calling your name,” nothing to fear.  The sound effects, however, build from string tremolos, to the twittering of sped-up radio, to a shrieking, bat-swarmed tempest that (temporarily) swallows up two heroines.

[5] A few other uses of the singing sands in music and audio art include Pippa Murphy’s Voix du Sable (2003) and Rob Mullender and Isobel Clouter’s “Baorittaolegainuoer—Natural Booming” (2007).  The Nima Sand Museum in Japan, in addition to hosting the world’s largest hourglass, is devoted to a local manifestation of the phenomenon.

[6] Polo, ibid.

[7] Annie Dillard, “Sand and Clouds,” Raritan 18:2 (Fall 1998): 34.

[8] Fittingly, “nagaras” references a drum to which the singing sands were likened in historical accounts Kirkegaard found.

[9] Thirlwell—the heteronymous composer and musician perhaps best known for the heady, precision noise artistry of Foetus—also composed a chamber work based on these dune travels: Eremikophobia, “fear of the desert,” premiered by the Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall last March.

[10] Christoph Cox, Letter, Artforum. January 2010: 16.

[11] Seth Kim-Cohen, “The Hole Truth,” Artforum. November 2009: 100.

[12] Remarkably, neither Kim-Cohen’s critique nor Cox’s defense notes Sonic Pavilion’s inadvertent yet glaring resonance with the region’s economy, and Paz’s source of wealth: mining.  That two kinds of capital, promiscuous with one another, are here extracted from digging into the earth surely forges as jarring and striking an extra-phenomenological meaning as any.

[13] The debate between Kim-Cohen and Cox has largely taken place in the pages of Artforum, in an exhibition called “Non-Cochlear Sound” curated by Kim-Cohen (also at Diapason Gallery), and during a handful of panel discussions in New York—indicating perhaps the still limited ambit of these concerns—though this moment is valuable not least for contemplating the growing pains of a critical discourse surrounding (and arguably already lagging behind) a still growing art form.