‘There’s these noises in my head, they just do not let me in peace’
August 11, 2011 § 7 Comments
From August 12th until September 11th, Kunsthaus Meinblau in Berlin shows A Long Day, an installation developed by Latvian artist Evelina Deicmane during a project residency for the Resonance project. Earlier this year, while I was in Berlin performing and recording with the Dutch-French electroacoustic alliance Diktat, I met Evelina at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in the Kottbusser Straße. There she had just finished another Berlin residency, which also had given rise to an installation, then at view at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien Exhibition space: Burt Nieks (The flying lake looked down upon the village).
‘Burt’ means to bewitch, or to enchant. And ‘nieks’ stands for easy, effortless. It is a split up into two parts of Burtnieks, the name of a lake near the Latvian village where, in 1978, Evelina Deicmane was born, and which plays an important role in Latvian mythology and folklore. Like Burt Nieks, also A Long Day is inspired by the myth of the flying lake. The villagers knew that if the flying lake’s name were mentioned it would fall upon the village, submerging it and its inhabitants. A Long Day depicts the village as it now stands, indeed at the bottom of the lake. It is not necessarily a tragic tale, Evelina says, but flying lakes should not be ignored: each one of us has its own flying lake …
“In ancient times lakes flew around, looking for a place to land. Also the people of current Lake Burtnieks valley saw a lake flying as a dark cloud. It roared and howled. The day became dark as night. Petrified that it will fall down on their head, people lamented and screamed because they did not know its name. Then they went to the sorcerer and pleaded him to talk the lake away. The sorcerer just said ‘man burt nieks’ (to bewitch is easy for me), and it fell down right away. This is how the lake got its name.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 1
I found something that was quite different from what I expected, when on Monday June 20th Evelina opened up the door for Carsten Seiffarth and me, so together we could enter the room at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien where her Burt Nieks was installed. It was very ‘art’, very ‘gallery’. Quite empty (or maybe I should say: spacious) and white. One wall was covered with a great number of drawings on paper, all lined up, bare. On another wall there were a couple more drawings, framed.
There were also two wooden sculptures. Very clean sculptures, of a simple geometric shape. There was this wooden triangle, for one. It took a while before I realized that the triangle was moving; it was balancing, slowly but continuously. Inside the wooden structure one could hear the sound of the water, responsible for the back and forth movement, but so faint, that one really had to put one’s ears pretty much against it… Then there was this big rectangular wooden shape on the floor, an enormous chordophone, that looked like a blown up abstraction of an 11-string zither, a dulcimer or a cigar box guitar.
The huge instrument of course tempted me to crouch down over it, to pluck its long strings and hear what it would sound like. But when I did, the seven small motors suddenly came alive. Their ‘wings’, all simultaneously, hit the strings and made a deafening chord resound; it was as if a large boulder had suddenly materialized and, out of the blue, plunged right in the middle of the rippleless surface of, indeed: a lake on a bright summer’s day. Then it sank, and disappeared again, so that just little after one already wondered whether it was real, or merely something one imagined.
The chord was repeated every few minutes or so. There was but this one sound, that faded into oblivion no sooner than it had come into being, that could be heard while visiting Burt Nieks, an installation that needed time to discover and explore. The near to septic neatness of its presentation turned out to be a decoy; a cover-up for a fascinating turmoil of images and mystery; a text with many layers, to be read, again and again. A stubborn text, one that did not easily reveal itself, but that proved well worth the effort made to conquer it.
“In my childhood I dreamed of becoming Baron Münchhausen – a man who went to conquer the Moon sitting on a cannonball. After the teacher instructed me ‘to choose a more useful profession’ I decide to become an ice-cream seller.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 11
A little later that afternoon, in her studio Evelina made me a coffee, and we talked about her work. I started with sort of an obvious question, and maybe even a silly one. But then of course Resonance is a European network for sound art. So I simply had to ask her this:
Evelina, even though ‘sound art’ is a term and notion that is notably vague and open to a whole range of different interpretations, the Burt Nieks installation that I just visited, is not a work that on a first encounter anyone would easily classify as sound art; even though it does involve sounds. How does your work (this one, and in general) relate to sound? Would you describe yourself as a sound artist?
“No, I guess I would not describe myself as a sound artist. At least not in the way that I understand this. Because at least half of my work, a very important part, is visual. Even though there is always, of course the sound, it’s…”
What do you mean by: ‘There is always the sound?’
“Several of my works include mechanisms that were built to make sounds. They were constructed to produce sounds, but the way the mechanisms look – the visual part – is equally important. Here, as part of Burt Nieks, there are the strings, of course, and the triangle. But also in my earlier works … let me tell you about SeasonSorrow, which was at the 2009 Venice Biennale. It actually had two parts. One was a video projection in a small room, which had 12 speakers built into the floor. The video showed close ups of a group of people stuck in the snow. But much of the story was told with the sound, which included like ice cracking, and all these kind of cold sounds. The main sound was that of the person’s breathing in the cold. Because the sound of breathing in the cold is very different from the sound when one breathes in the summertime. And I recorded each person, so each of the 12 speakers was very personal. And I used this breath to make the sound of wind. The sound, like, of a very cold wind…”
“SeasonSorrow, like all my pieces, is about the people that live in my country.
Often the works are even more personal, and deal with my grand parents, or the village where I was born. It is always kind of a looking back to where I came from.
Also the piece here at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, which is based on the lake Burtnieks near my village.”
So the people we see in SeasonSorrow are not actors, but people from your village?
And they let you bury them in the snow?
Evelina laughs. “Yes! Mind you, we were very careful of course. No one got hurt. Everyone was happy. Actually, the trick was that I made a very large table… And then we choose the right position to shoot the images, matching up with the horizon…”
Ah, that is smart! So the things are not always what they seem…
“But there is no additional digital trickery, or whatever, afterwards; like in Photoshop or something… And then there is the other part of the piece, this mechanism with metal gears, cog wheels, like in mechanical clocks.”
“At the one end you see a motor. That is moving the smallest of the cog wheels, which transmits its movement on to the second, larger one, and so on, like a chain, up to the big one. And the big one is playing a vinyl record.”
A record! One that you made?
What’s on it then? What do we hear?
“It is the sound of a snow ball rolling, from very small to very heavy. Which is, of course, what is reflected in the construction of the mechanism, the series of ‘growing’ cog wheels that set the record player into motion. This is the story: sometimes someone is making a snow ball, having big goals. The person is starting from a very small thing and then is like, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling until the ball has become so heavy that he cannot move it anymore. But then spring and summer come along. And nature will just melt the thing away. That’s very emotional. You cannot do anything about it. You can see it in the box that I use to transport the mechanism. At both sides there’s a little round window. If you look through, you will see a video. One is of a man, who is rolling the snow ball. And in the second one you see the same man in spring time. The snow ball is no longer there. It is himself now that is rolling.”
“It is what I call an ’emotional machine’. I really like to take some parts of some mechanism, and then make them play something really intimate. I built this machine because of all the wasted time and work. It doesn’t make sense that the human makes a snow ball, because always the spring will come, and the snow ball will melt away. So I built a machine. Now the work is done by a machine, and not by a human. Here is another example, that I made last year. It is called Grandfather’s Summer.”
It looks like a pair of lungs …
“I wanted to build a machine to play the instruments. There’s so many people that are going out, and try to earn a little bit of money by playing accordeon in the street. And I again found a mechanism to do that. You spin the handle, and then the accordeons are being lifted up and down, which is making the noise. And then certain buttons are pressed for the melodies … “
“So I say about myself that I am not really a sound artist. But there are some noises in my head that just do not let me in peace; and that is why the sound always comes back. Like the sound of coldness…”
Are these sounds that you remember?
“Sounds that I remember, or sounds that are in my head.” Again Evelina laughs. It’s an open and transparent laugh. Crystalline … Then she continues: “Or maybe the sounds are just in my head, I don’t now. It is certainly not only memory. It’s something… in general I get more inspired… Let me see … All things considered, when I look at what inspires me, it is often the sound, the noise, that then makes me see some kind of a visual… Let me show you…”
Evelina opened up a picture on the screen of her laptop. “See, even for this work, which is actually just a photograph, I was inspired by the noise.”
Oh my, oh my! Oh dear, oh dear! I must say, now those can not have been pretty, pretty sounds! Is this the sound that you hear inside your head?
“It was a very hot summer last year, and every morning there was a man working with a saw and things. And I remember this moment when you kind of wake up, and you still do not understand if all is just inside your head, or if things are happening in reality. It is then that I became interested in this thing… like machine sounds. It just made me so much like… maybe not in peace… but that I should make some work… early morning, and…”
And this is how you feel like when you wake up in the morning?
“Yes,” she says, “when I wake up with a drilling. Especially here in Berlin everyone likes to drill things in the summer. So…”
Evelina then laughed one more time, a third time. It was a curious, modest little laugh, into which – because of our conversation, and because of the drawings that I saw, and all that she told me – I could not but read a great many different meanings. Meanings, that now make me look forward an awful lot to seeing and hearing A Long Day.
Meanwhile, I will not lightly forget this one image, part of Burt Nieks, which, besides many other things, for me that afternoon in just a few simple lines seemed to sum up what ‘sound art’ could be all about …
“A man asked me if I wanted him to make my world smaller, this way it should be easier. I said yes. The man set out to work. He cut the world into halves and started to roll it smaller. Soon he got tired and did not finish the work. I guess sometimes men get tired of what they say.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 26