In this text I will be arguing for the significance of silence or circumspection as a form of active disengagement. In particular I will be looking at this as an artistic tactic, focusing on sound art or experimental music practices that display such tactics as a matter of choice or necessity. These forms of practice will be related to historically situated practices that have taken various approaches to avoid confrontation while nevertheless asserting their presence in relation to specific social issues. I will be proposing that such practices institute new relationships between an artist and their audience that may open up the potential for new social and political effects.
The following is a catalogue text I wrote for artist Ren Bo’s solo exhibition, currently on show at Jiali Gallery in Beijing. More information about the show can be found on the gallery’s website.
An interpretation of the practice of Ren Bo
Ren Bo’s work originally attracted my attention because of its quiet humour and playfulness with and within the institutional setting of the gallery. The first piece of her work I discovered was USA USB (2008) in the group show Memory Identity,1 and presented in the current show [subsequently removed]. This small work was placed on the floor of a large darkened room. The piece itself displayed a certain relaxed attitude to its presentation, trailing its various component parts across the floor in an abstract formation that defied easy analysis – beyond the pun of the title formed in neon tubing. For me this quiet joke was enough to catch my eye, humour acting generally as a subversion of the world around us, and this simple and seemingly pointless play on words pleased me without forcing or expecting an interpretation. The piece left things open to interpretation, without pushing the viewer over that particular threshold.
I now realise this humour and playfulness works alongside a serious intent, with a touch of pathos in the hopelessness expressed in some of Ren Bo’s works. This combination works in a quiet way, to put the viewer in a strange position in relation to the objects and the subtle meanings of them. In the way that the pieces do not settle in their meanings or our experiences of them, this unease represents a small element of doubt in the world. This subtlety is an important part of the work’s life in the world. They are not didactic or histrionic in their presentations. The “calmness” of the works brings us up short. It does not express in itself nor does it demand physical or intellectual interaction. If it is an object it stands before us; if it is an image, it is presented to us, for consideration.