kim demuth

the quiet room
Soapbox Gallery, Brisbane
October 2000

For centuries the museum space has been inscribed as a 'quiet room'. lt is supposedly a space in which we should quietly and passively absorb culture. Moreover, within the museum history of 'high art', sound is considered to be an aggressive and crude anti-form which has the potential to destabilise the boundaries of distinct art forms. Sound inhabits and invades objects, bodies and buildings and it cannot be controlled in the same way that visible objects are (supposedly) contained within single point perspective. As a counterpoint, Demuth's ironically titled installation The Quiet Room inhabited the entire space of Soapbox Gallery. Even though it was 'situated' in the middle room, an aggressive beating sound from the work reverberated through the walls into other artworks and even spilled onto the footpath.

As it happened, when I approached The Quiet Room it was at a silent stage of its performance. Initially, it delighted my eyes by offering a human-scaled 'booth' from which emanated an indulgent and warm electric glow. The booth could not be entered but it offered hundreds of oversized key-shaped holes, cut into its sides, through which I could peer. Softened reflections of the shapes radiated from the booth across the walls of the room. This effect was strongly reminiscent of children's comfort lamps, the kind that playfully throw light reflections of storybook characters onto bedroom walls. Recently, the light bulb and the box have become a motif in Demuth's work, in which surreal dissections of objects such as body parts are clinically illuminated inside coffin-like boxes. With similarities to the aesthetic approach of Robert Gober, Demuth's representation of the corporeal body is acutely ironic as it is a remembered, but invisible or dismembered body.

In this exhibition the motif of the box was in the form of a vertical booth, a corny representation of a surrogate 'self which cheekily offered 'key holes' to its interior. The key hole, light bulb and box are all cliched Western symbols for 'the search for inner self which Demuth exploits precisely in order to emphasise their laughable failure as tools for self-knowledge. In line with this, when I peered into the key holes it was a somewhat disappointing and humiliating experience as on the other side of the booth was a corresponding keyhole through which an( other) gazing and giggling viewer peered back. This experience had a strong connection to one of Demuth's previous installations, Booth (1999), in which the viewer was invited to ogle through a single eye-sized hole in a wall. But, once more, all expectations were denied as an enlarged video projection of a stranger's eye sarcastically blinked back from the opposite wall. lt was a viewer-centred joke employing a cliched symbol of voyeurism (the hole in the wall) to lure an unsuspecting sucker to a rather narcissistic punch line. Joke over. Demuth's work speculates that the desire to find something meaningful by looking in(wards) results in nothing but a representation of self, a representation which may be described as a discomforting and pathetic 'stranger'. This phenomenon is also at the core of certain recent psychoanalytic thinking. However, unlike some of these psychoanalytic conclusions, The Quiet Room, through its deployment of sound, implies that visual negation of a familiar 'self does not necessarily equate with nothingness or absence.

As I remained in The Quiet Room a prerecorded percussive sound began to fill-out this apparently absent psychospace with a strange material presence. lt was a loud beating sound, dense with connotations of fear, expectation, suspense and nervous humour. lt seemed as though Demuth implied a narrative that began with silence and ended with noise. Yet rather than offering a resolution conventionally associated with the narrative form, it reached towards visual form so as to facilitate an unfastening of meaning, via the alarming effect of the beating sound.

The sound in The Quiet Room was wickedly comical both in its unexpected entry to the experience of the installation and its quirky sounding 'boing'. The sounds were numerous harsh 'strikes' of what seemed like a kind of large metallic gong, similar to the raucous resonance of gamelan percussion instruments used in Balinese music. The sound was repeated, at first with large intervals, and gradually picked up speed until it reached an creepy, mechanised orgasm. The noise seemed to thicken the air in the room and made what was initially an appeasing atmosphere into an intensely claustrophobic din. As amusingly as it started it suddenly stopped and a few minutes later the process started all over again.

Like a joke with no punch line the experience was a beguiling mix of hilarity, disappointment and physically felt suspense, similar in sound effect to a scene from a B grade horror film. Even though it was only for a few minutes, the forcefulness of the sound dramatically inhabited my perceptive assumptions about the installation. It changed the way in which the installation was experienced over time, because the aggressive beats deliberately smashed the initial wholeness (or 'wholesomeness') of the visual scene. lt literally shocked a viewer into an intense experience of unknown drama.

Although the sound was an overwhelming presence it could not easily be named. As a result, it represented an 'invisible something', an uncanny effect that is in accord with others of Demuth's works which rigorously investigate notions of human presence and absence. The disquieting sound in The Quiet Room broke the initial visual presence of the surrogate person (glowing booth). Perhaps our feeble human attempts at knowing an interior 'self (through art or otherwise) may generate poignant and potentially endless rhythmic mimicries of another presence which, however frustratingly, remains nameless.