“Down, down in the basement, we hear the sound of machines.”
— Talking Heads
Have you ever been in a public building and noticed the incessant low-level apian buzz of the fluorescent lights?
Artist Bill Seaman has not only noticed that electric hum, he has enhanced it by tuning a piano to its particular vibrational frequency and composing a continual musical recording that celebrates background noise.
In a site specific installation at the University Art Gallery, Seaman, a professor of art, art history & visual design at Duke University, has take special note of the most ordinary and pedestrian elements of the gallery — electrical outlets, security cameras, fire alarm boxes and water fountains — and transformed them into objects of contemplation.
Throughout the gallery and the surrounding ancillary areas (such as lobby, hallways, staircases), Seaman and his assistants have applied plain black vinyl lettering that makes commentary on the usually overlooked devices that keep public buildings safe, secure and operational.
The comments are short, witty and occasionally oblique, with many allusions to art history. The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte’s painting “The Treachery of Images,” which featured the image of a tobacco pipe with the legend “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) is recalled when one looks up to the ceiling in the main gallery.
Text states “this is not a pipe” mere inches below a water pipe.
Below a bubbler, another line of text says “this is not a fountain.” It alludes again not only to Magritte, but to Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual work “Fountain,” which of course was not a fountain. It was a urinal.
Duchamp looms heavy throughout the installation. By a staircase, a line of text reads “knot painting / this is not a nude descending a staircase.” Below wall-mounted lights, a line informs the viewer that they are “ignored readymades.”
Seaman, an accomplished and prolific author, notes with a vertically-oriented message on an architectural column “I write a column on architectural metaphors.” The mind spins a bit with this type of layered meaning throughout.
Elsewhere, at the bottom of door is a single word — “stoppages.” Closing a door stops movement through it. But one can also imagine a space between the two p’s. Might a writer, on occasion, want to “stop pages?”
The artist clearly has a deep rooted affection for puns, word play and homonyms. Some of the text read as bits of poetry and the proximity to certain features of the building makes a certain kind of beautiful sense.
Above a bright red telephone: “the room of the read/ the read of the room / room read / red phone / read phoneme / read meme /”
Below a fire alarm: “The years / the ears / hearing here / intentional errs”
Behind the security guard station: “the infrastructural / watch details”
In an elevator, there is a sweet suggestion: “an inappropriate use of space / erotic thoughts triggered by words”
Beyond the text which dominates the installation, there is the beguiling music, three video projections and a series of handsome large-scale photographs of fire extinguishers, pipes and other building paraphernalia.
But for me, it is the juxtaposition of Seaman’s verbiage with the preexisting surroundings that reaches deepest. He has an unspoken aesthetic kinship with certain artists and musicians. Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Laurie Anderson, Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and David Byrne all come to mind.
The installation is near perfect. Go and read and “notice the sound of the pipes.”
“Bill Seaman: Suspended Sentence” is at the University Art Gallery, CVPA, UMass Dartmouth, 715 Purchase St, New Bedford until Sept. 13.
Don Wilkinson is a painter and art critic who lives in New Bedford. Contact him at Don.Wilkinson@gmail.com. His columns run each week in Coastin’.