The term “immersive” is often abused—a fancy-sounding cliché to describe an exhibition that is merely expansive, cluttered, or, as the critic Ben Davis noted, “full of big things.” Not so with regard to the New Museum’s recent survey of works by the Albanian-born artist Anri Sala. The installations were immersive in the truest, most gratifying sense of the term, placing viewer-listeners within multi-channel video and sound environments and challenging them to feel as well as contemplate them.
Two early videos were on view intermittently in the basement theater. One of them, Intervista (Finding the Words), 1998, provided especially useful context for the subsequent works. Here, a young Sala interviews his mother while repeatedly showing her old footage he had accidentally discovered of her when she was a young ideologue parroting the party line of Albania’s repressive Communist regime. The more she watches, the more she finds incomprehensible “not the ideology but the grammar” of her younger self’s speech. It “becomes banal, until it has lost all significance.”
The themes of this early video—that selfhood and subjective experience are actively constructed and reconstructed, fragmented by circumstance and time; that speech and action can lose meaning with repetition; that truth, as Sala has said, “does not lie in the content alone” but “equally in the syntax”—also surfaced in works upstairs.
In Làk-kat 2.0 (British/American), 2015, for example, Sala juxtaposes two videos of a scene in which a Senegalese radio broadcaster instructs young boys to repeat specific Wolof-language words, most of which, having emerged during French colonialism, describe shades ranging from dark to light. Each version is subtitled, one in British English, the other in American English. Differences in linguistic coding emerge between the translations that reflect differences between national hierarchies of skin color and cultural value: “a very dark one” versus “the darkest one”; “outlandish” versus “gibberish”; “Whitey” versus “great white hope.” Meanwhile the repetition begins to render the words as mere sounds, exposing further the unstable foundations of language.
Other works experimented with what one might call the syntax of music. In Ravel Ravel (2013), adjacent videos show the left hands of two pianists playing nearly identical versions of Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand,” which the composer wrote for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. A sixteen-channel audio configuration enveloped the listener in a foam-lined room designed, like a recording booth, to absorb and exclude sound. Note for note, the two pieces were identical on the page, but Sala made subtle adjustments to their tempos throughout, so that the performances move in and out of synchronization. We hold our breath, watching and listening for the fluttering hands and notes to match, separate, then reunite, captivated by their ceaseless interweaving.
In a second-floor gallery, The Present Moment (in B-flat) and The Present Moment (in D), both 2014, seemed to constitute the exhibition’s heart. The two works, based on separate recompositions of a string sextet piece by Arnold Schoenberg (focusing on its B-flat and D notes, respectively), were presented by way of two large screens and twenty audio channels. Competing sounds collided, bathing listeners in a cacophony of strings; the videos, meanwhile, closely framed the musicians’ hands and limbs in furious motion.
The sound changed as visitors padded around the carpeted gallery, shifting their relationship to the speakers. If they held still, harmonic undertones emerged from the atonal medley. Spring-mounted drumsticks bounced upon snare drums hung from the ceiling, animated by the vibration created by speakers under the drumheads. This was sound experienced as a physical resonance, an engulfing presence. “Immersive” became a word a writer could reclaim, guilt-free.