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Sons & Lumières: A History of Sound in 20th Century Art at the Centre Pompidou

by Enrico Pedrini

Joe Jones, Bird Cage, 1964, mixed media.

History is the subject of a major exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, entitled Sons et Lumières. The exhibition’s structure is not conditioned by the marketplace of art, but is guided by the historical chronology of events that define an evolution of artistic themes. Sons et Lumières examines the interaction between music and the plastic arts of the 20th century with all of their reciprocal connections and influences. Early modern artists became increasingly interested in the sonic dimension, ultimately attaining a true marriage of image and sound. László Moholy-Nagy and Raul Hausmann favored this physical change from one medium into another through electronics, maintaining that music was no longer solely linked to instruments, but bound to optical processes. By way of music, they believed, painting could be liberated from its support and become “moving color,” capable of transcending space and time. In other works by these artists, sound materializes in vibrations that become the primary stuff of the work itself.

In this way, a completely new art was born, one capable of enlarging perceptions through “color music.” This development coincides with Albert Einstein’s discovery of the Theory of Relativity, and addresses space and time as other than absolute, distinct entities. Images and sound were reciprocally united in the space-time dimension of the chromotrope, which enhanced artistic creativity and experimentation. The interaction between art and music also carried a deep theoretical and critical reflection on the equivalence between signs and auditory sense perception.

“Ruptures: Chance, Noise, Silence” represents the final section of the exhibition. Through an examination of indeterminacy, probability, and chance, the relationship between sight and sound in contemporary art moved into focus. Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy helped to orient art toward a new reality based on interdisciplinary experimentation, probability, and complementary coupling of elements. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the issues of art became increasingly bound to our concept of common environment. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela believed that the artwork involves global perceptions, because the viewer is immersed in the physical experience of sound and light vibrations which stimulate him to a new awareness of his senses. John Cage and artists of the Fluxus movement, while following influences of Futurism (Luigi Russolo) and Marcel Duchamp’s use of chance occurrences, sought to liberate art to a completely undetermined vision of the world with no boundaries between art and life. Gary Hill and Bill Viola currently use strength and energy of acoustic pressure on the audience, reaching its maximum tolerance. Artist Bruce Nauman favored chance “accidents” (events) which led sound art into the last phase in the exhibition which is bound to experience and created by way of silence. Particular attention is paid to the exhibition’s epilogue which includes Rodney Graham and Pierre Huyghe installations. These works leave the door open to future developments in auditory language.

Contemporary art constitutes an obstacle to globalization with its powerful, intrusive market influences. The tradition of enlightenment, as demonstrated by these Parisian institutions, restores utopian aspirations and the search for truth to art. Another important aspect of the show is its emphasis on the historical chronology of events of 20th century art history. French Enlightenment answers post-modern globalization from London, refocusing world attention on the truly important themes of art of the last century. Sophie Duplaix, Marcella Lista and Bruno Veret curated the project, demonstrating the most seminal influences on modern and contemporary art.

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