It is one of the ironies of publicity that site and time-specific artworks are regularly transformed into texts. On Sunday, September 31, for example, resident artist Zhang Mengtai held an open house in Handshake 302. He built an amplifier that transmitted sounds he had collected in Baishizhou and then compiled into a soundscape. Abstracted from the noisy jumble of handshake allies and crowded streets, the honking cars and migrating dialects that Mengtai recorded seemed delicate, almost lyrical in their evocation of Baishizhou. We were entranced. But this text is not that experience.
Of course, it is also true that the work of creating site and time-specific objects involves textualization, which is to say the transformation of one experience into a form that allows for another experience. In fact, art mediates between at least two disparate experiences—some original experience (on the part of the artist) and some secondary experience (on the part of the audience). There is ongoing displacement as we imaginatively connect this here-and-now (of listening) to that there-and-then (of when the sounds were made) by way of discarded stools, a worker’s glove, and a digital recording. Indeed, the elegant complexity of Mengtai’s piece stood in contrast to its assumed origin—Baishizhou. The fading sounds and rhythms, silences and abrupt transitions had a musicality that we do not associate with the chaos of an urban village. But perhaps that’s the point: an artistic soundscape does not refer to an actual place with a traceable address. Instead, a soundscape evokes possible worlds, which are always already imagined.
I suspect that the presentation allowed us to hear otherwise. Mengtai has a soothing presence and the amplifier provided a focus for our gaze, which in turn allowed us to concentrate on what we heard. The conversation ebbed and flowed, words and the pauses between. There were silences, which were not empty, but moments in which the mind could discover that the path from ear to mind is not as smooth as we like to think. When honk does not take us directly to a car, where does it take us? This moment of hesitation, of questioning, of re-hearing stops the usual flow of understanding (honk = approaching car) and forces us to ask, what does it mean to listen? And as we reconsider what it means to listen, perhaps we also begin to let go of ideas about what we think we heard when we walked from subway exit A via Shahe Road to Mengtai’s experimental studio (du jour) in Handshake 302.