Much of the work of Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard, whose projects incorporate video and photography, homes in on particular places or environments. “Void,” Kirkegaard’s first solo exhibition in the United States, sampled from several recent bodies of work, drawing on material recorded in Chernobyl, Ethiopia, and Greenland. Its centerpiece, however, departed from this approach. The foreboding sculpture-cum-instrument Black Metal Square #1 (2017) is a one-meter-square sheet of copper suspended from steel wire and bearing electronics on its back that cause it to tremble and produce a variegated drone. The work—which is part of a trio of similar pieces by Kirkegaard—makes reference, of course, to Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square, yet it does not presume to offer total abstraction: the drone is the result of the copper’s own vibrations being amplified and fed back into the sheet. In addition, the work nods to an early seventeenth-century drawing in which British astronomer Robert Fludd used a black square to depict the infinite void predating the birth of the universe.
Black Metal Square #1 set the stage for the rest of the show, which consisted of small groupings of photographs, a video, and audio works. The piece underscored that Kirkegaard’s work exists somewhere between documentation and abstraction, and should not be understood as strictly either. Several photographs depicted interiors from the hotel Kirkegaard stayed in when he visited Chernobyl’s radioactive exclusion zone in 2005. Appearing almost hermetically sealed, lit mostly by fluorescent lights and emptied of any activity that might indicate the presence of human life or even the passage of time, the rooms have a vaguely surreal quality. During the same trip, Kirkegaard recorded the material for Aion (2006), a fifty-minute video that played on a small headphone-equipped monitor in the show. The soundtrack, inspired by composer Alvin Lucier’s iconic work I Am Sitting in a Room (1969) and released as the LP Four Rooms in 2008, is an audio piece built from ten-minute field recordings made in rooms in abandoned Chernobyl buildings that were then played back into the spaces, a process repeated as many as ten times; the footage, meanwhile, consists of shots of the vacant sites. Comprising shifting and collapsing layers of sound, the audio work undermines the emptiness of the imagery. However still, it seems to convey, a room has a voice.
But it was difficult to hear those voices in this compact presentation of Aion, since the drone of Black Metal Square #1 bled through the headphones. Similarly, the sound pieces Expulsion and Melt felt like an afterthought in the show, despite being central to their respective bodies of work, one of which focuses on exorcisms performed in Ethiopia and the other on shifting states of glaciers in Greenland. While photographs from those projects were displayed in the main space, the audio works were relegated to headphones tucked away in a back alcove. The photograph Ice Age #2 (2016), in which we see a microphone inserted into a glacier’s glittering blue crevasse, was useful in illustrating the recording process for Melt, but it’s hardly as interesting as the work itself. Moving between a trickle and a thundering deluge, between a dry creaking and more predictable aquatic sounds, Melt conveys the temporalities of distant but still human-altered environments. The finer points of the conversation Kirkegaard ostensibly facilitated between sound, image, and space in such projects, however, were dulled in the gallery. I wonder what might emerge if his works were more carefully or even imaginatively installed, perhaps in a way that would allow the sound components to extend more fully into the space in which they were experienced.