Sea Wall by Edwin Lo* consists of two sets of the same objects – one video with sound accessed via headphones and one pair of drawings. All components are placed horizontally along a straight line, inviting an act of reading from left to right, from right to left, or from somewhere in the middle with a gaze that extends sideways. The drawings are set apart from the video by the wiring of the post-card-sized monitor, constituting a rupture between the graphic iteration and the moving image.
One video frames a body of water along the shore where several ships are docked. A hill lies at the background, its slope dotted by electricity pylons. Blocks of residential buildings on the side contest the height of the hill. Occasionally, small boats of various kinds effortlessly cruise past in the foreground; otherwise, the undulating sea surface is the only moving element in view. Shaped like a cascade, the scene is uneventful, extracted from an ordinary day of grey. Once the headphones are put on, however, the viewer’s reality completely changes. Crisping and crackling, rolling and rumbling, clinking and clacking… Sounds with a glazy texture bustle about continuously, at times in a crescendo, at times gathering intensity, but no one instant presents the same rhythm as the other. According to Lo, the recording was made with a DIY hydrophone submerged about one meter underwater. The experience of listening to the invisible world is at once intimate and mysterious.
The other video also shows a scene with the sea in the foreground, while the facade of the first few storeys of a residential building lies at the back. This image is comparatively monotonous and grid-based. To listen to the audio recording while looking at the moving image is, once again, to be transposed to a radically different reality. While the listener mostly hears a distant drone, at times barely audible, she is also exposed to, all of a sudden, thick and heavy vrooms. Are they engines, the restless vibrations of some unknown metal? The farther away the sounds, the more intense a sense of time passing, and the more emergent a sense of anticipation. The sounds are certainly suggestive of passing ships, which Lo says he ordinarily hears from his home at night, between waking and sleeping. Lo told me the recordings had not been mixed, but he edited out such background sounds as people talking, their footsteps, and the wash of waves. In both videos, the sound unsettles the fabricated tranquility of the image of the places, activating the otherwise stagnant economy of visual exchange.
Lo emphasizes repeatedly – in both his artist statement and during our conversation – that he was making a soundmark of Aberdeen, his community and home. The idea of soundmark comes from the language of acoustic ecology, aiming at reducing noises as unpleasant sounds, so that soundmarks as specially regarded sounds by people of a community could be registered. I find Lo’s audio recording captivating, however, not because it gives any sense of place out of geography or shared identity. It is rather the displacement (not placement) of the sound as against the moving image that makes possible experiences of strangeness and surprise. In Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006), Brandon LaBelle offers a helpful reference to discerning between the two different ways sound is put to work. While acoustic ecology’s concern in soundscape composition emphasizes “immersion and origin”, LaBelle says the “backside” of such a concern does not work through identification and information. Instead, it “wields its power by being boundless, uprooted, and distinct.” It is my impression that Lo is aware of the competing intentions but is yet to give them – and the tension between them – confident expression.
In Lo’s earlier works like Auditory Scenes: Tsing Yi (2009), activities around the sea have also been his sonic sources, although he seemed to be more interested in composing narratives out of the sounds of human social life. Sea Wall takes a more abstract direction. In fact, it was the first time the artist has ever materialized his own listening experience as graphic elements – drawings of brown horizontal lines in varying lengths and in uniform thickness. Lo told me he made the drawings out of a sense of inadequacy after making the video and sound recording. I am not sure what kind of inadequacy he was referring to, but for me, the question is more whether the juxtaposition of the digital and the analogue have produced interesting dialogues. For instance, I asked Lo how he determined the size of the video and the drawings, which could have implications on the structural and conceptual relation between them. Lo said he “didn’t want the videos to overwhelm the drawings.” I speculate that the intention is to keep the moving images as relatively neutral visual registers, while accentuating the touch of the hand-drawn on paper. But the current set-up seems to yield an unintended, reverse effect: the drawings are presented as a pair of precious and pure objects to invite clinical inspection, rendering the dynamical relation between the moving images and the sonic composition unproductively dubious in the context of the work as a whole.
Would the drawings have generated a different kind of intervention if viewed from a different vantage point or in a different objecthood than, say, hanging wall pieces? Are there other options that would guide viewers and listeners to engage with how the artist thinks what he does?I am reminded of Cesare Pavese’s faith in our power to wonder, “The surest – also the quickest – way to awake the sense of wonder in ourselves is to look intently, undeterred, at a single object. Suddenly, miraculously, it will reveal itself as something we have never seen before.” (Dialoghi con Leuco, 1947 cited in Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style version 3.2, 2008) While Sea Wall may be a work not having fully entrusted itself to the wonder of sound, it has certainly affirmed how the drowsing of time could be sonically more interesting than clarity of information, how attention drifting and attention setting could both be gifts.
*Sea Wall (2013) is a work presented in the exhibition Beyond the Sound at Comix Home Base, curated by Anne Laure Chamboissier as part of Le French May 2015.
First published in issue 115 (July 2015) of AM Post, Hong Kong