19 JUNE – 19 SEPTEMBER 2010
As a Yorkshire girl I know a thing or two about marching bands. I sang with them in my youth as an enthusiastic member of The Huddersfield Choral Society Youth Choir. The strains of ‘Jerusalem’ at full pelt accompanied by The Brighouse and Rastrick Band must have echoed up, down and across the slopes of the Pennines all those years ago, thanks to the acoustics inside Huddersfield Town Hall. I know that brass instruments take an awful lot of effort and skill to play and that the sound a marching band makes can make lot of people of a certain age in Yorkshire cry. I also know that brass bands are loud. Very, very loud.
Cornelia Parker’s brass band, on show in the UK for the first time at The Baltic this month, is not very loud. Cornelia Parker’s brass band is, in fact, silent. And flat. Very, very flat. I don’t mean that the notes it plays are flat. I mean that the whole thing is flat, as flat as a flattened frog on the roadside. Flat, silent – and utterly beautiful.
Parker’s work, Perpetual Canon, consists of an orchestra of brass instruments that have been industrially flattened by a 250 ton press and suspended on wires in a circle from the ceiling around a single electric bulb. It fills its space within the gallery with light and shadows, the inner circle of the instruments bask in a golden glow from the iridescent bulb at its centre, the outside surfaces appear cold and strangely visceral. These outside surfaces, with their crushed valves and elongated tubes have taken on flesh like qualities in the process of their being flattened. Silver ‘intestines’ and folds of ‘skin’ seem to wrap around the main recognisable body of each instrument with a cold, leathery caress.
Shadows are cast on the gallery’s walls by each instrument. The shadows give each one of the crushed pieces the third dimension that the press’s weight has removed as the French horns, the trumpets and the cornets finally folded in on themselves, exhaling their last breath. The shadows also take the place of the musicians who could no longer make a note from the pieces, no matter what their skill.
As I wandered around the outer circle of Perpetual Canon (its title is a musical term that describes a ’round’, the repetition of a phrase of music again and again) and realised that the work was actually exhibited in silence I was surprised. The sight of so many iconic shapes seemed to trigger the sounds of the instruments playing inside my head. As the Baltic’s guide to the work says:
‘Parker’s suspended instruments produce a cacophony of shadows that replace the sound. Both amplifying and containing the instruments, the shadows of the viewers replace the absent players.’
It is almost as though one’s senses force imaginary sounds from the instruments as the eyes work with the brain to connect and make sense of such a strong and visually stimulating display.