Jessica Sack motioned to Anthony Hernandez’ Landscapes for the Homeless # 68, asking the audience what they saw.
Piled possessions, one viewer noted. A messy space, without any inherent order.
The soiled rug, another suggested. Sack nodded. It looked like a home. Or a shelter, not a home. Except nobody was living there.
The room was silent. A few whispers passed between friends. Papers rustled.
And then the hobbling, whispering ghost of Béla Bartók appeared, craning over the image, taking in its diagonals and empty spaces, the near-white sunlight where a window might have been in another life.
Was this so very different from his String Quartet No. 6, which could fill the cardboard corners with its looping, melancholic hum?
Maybe not, after all.
Welcome to the latest iteration of Playing Images at the Yale University Art Gallery, a joint venture between the Gallery (Sack is the Jan and Frederick Mayer Senior Associate Curator of Public Education there) and the Haven String Quartet. The project focuses on how looking and listening across time periods, cultures and media can heighten the overall sensory experience of an artwork. Or rather, listening to art and looking at music differently.
Last Wednesday, with a Sunday encore, Sack and the quartet presented the Bartók in conversation with Tim Hetherington’s Untitled, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan (below) and Hernandez’ Landscapes… (above). While Bartók’s sixth string quartet is a highly emotive meditation on the changing tide of Europe in 1939, Hernandez and Hetherington deal extensively with landscapes from which humans are absent, while their trappings remain.
Did the link sound tenuous? Maybe to the purists in the room. But viewers were willing to give it a try.
“The theme today is going to be the idea of emotion, and how thoughts of absence and memory can play out when a sound and image are connected, and how structures have to be in place in the music and in the image for this kind of connection to work,” Sack said as she introduced the performance.
And connect – if unexpectedly – they did.
Bartók’s exposition, for instance, is highly influenced by his experience traveling through and playing in the same towns the Nazis were starting to target in 1939. Born long after the composer’s death, Hernandez could be seen as picking up the thread Los Angeles, where he would photograph the homeless’ abandoned or absent dwellings on long, marauding walks around the city and beneath the L.A. freeway.
Still not sold? Stay with it for a little while longer. The second movement, a looping, lopsided adaptation of a march that becomes progressively more anxious, dovetailed with Hetherington’s photograph, a landscape overtaken (if temporarily) by soldiers, with no soldiers to speak of in sight. As Bartók’s marcher fussed and fumbled, the music growing more agitated, the photograph too revealed itself as uncanny: a tree that doubled as a hat and shirt rack, but hummed of Goya’s flayed and hanging bodies. The camp’s upper wall, bending to a weight that was not quite clear. A place that was not home, but not not home.
“What really fascinates me about these pictures is the capture of the moment. The lives of people. I feel that in these [musical] intervals, the stretch and intensity of the pitch is extraordinary too. What Bartók did ... through his music, through his voice, I feel that you can hear the cry of the whole of humanity,” said Violinist Yaira Matyakubova (pictured above), looking to the Hetherington between movements.
A cry of sorts indeed. By the third movement, all but a few in the room were hooked. With a haunting beginning that merged into something not unlike the theme from Psycho, the music became an integral part of exploring this verboten, simultaneous human and nonhuman and inhuman(e) landscape.
“It’s an unsettling feeling … you feel almost like an intruder,” Sack said.
Which brought the weight of the last crashing down, not heavy so much as astoundingly, unbearably frank. No one, Bartók seemed to say through a final five notes, hanging in the air, was going to come back from this quite the way they left.
And the silence afterward – that senza colore kind of silence, the haunting and discordant chords that could be whipping wind, the limping, dizzy pacing of the march, that wistful, glimmering hope that is crushed by the end of the quartet?
Now that is something to look at.