Listening to Silence
September 9 – October 18, 2020
We can close our eyes, but we cannot close our ears. Whether we like it or not, no matter where we go, we are always listening to something.
In 1951, John Cage realized that mankind is inca- pable of experiencing total silence. Even in a perfect anechoic chamber, we can hear the sounds our bodies inadvertently emit. A rumbling stomach, our heart pumping in our ears, the inhale and exhale of breathing… These are the sounds of life from our own bodies.
Before we are born into this world, our bodies are in our mother’s womb surrounded with the sound of water and the sounds of her pulse.
Once we enter the world and become accustomed to the tumult of society, it becomes harder and harder to turn our ears to the sounds inside ourselves.
While sitting, while drinking tea, while closing your eyes, try to turn your ears to these sounds that exist inadvertently. At the end of this day, I hope you turn off the television and the stereo—those external sounds that flow through your home—and listen instead to the sounds that are inside you.
The human body’s motion and location are deeply correlated with the act of listening. For example, the sound of ocean waves will evoke different feelings depending on whether you are in the ocean, on the beach, or faintly hearing them through the window of your room.
That’s why it’s very important to my art practice for me to see how the audience interacts with my work. In fact, I often get new ideas from this connection. Through the viewer, my imagination grows wider.
For me, the motivation to create music is to be able to contrast two opposing elements so that they might coexist. Think of the boundaries between music and not music, primitive and mathematical, natural and unnatural.
Exhibited at NowHere, New York, 2020
Sound + mixed media, dimensions variable
This work consists of a jet-black sphere containing 16 speaker units, six loudspeakers suspended from the ceiling, and a cubic structure. It creates an acoustic space by reverberating the sound of water from the sphere and the surrounding environment using four omnidirectional microphones installed on both the structure and the loudspeakers. REI is not a standalone work, but a series of sound installations using the black spherical speaker. The oceans evaporate, rain falls, and rivers continue to flow forever without any kind of consciousness. REI moves from the conscious to the subconscious by superimposing the sound echoing from one’s own body and the sound of water echoing from the sphere, which is a metaphor for this world. Try to listen to the silence that rises up afterwards.
Exhibited at NowHere, New York, 2020
Sound + mixed media, 487.6 x 139.7 x 252.8 cm
This work consists of six gates, gravel, and ten loudspeakers. It creates an acoustic space by resonating the sound of footsteps via five microphones installed under the corridor connecting the gates. The six gates become smaller and smaller as one goes further in; to pass the final gate, you must bow down. In Buddhism, there is a concept called riku-dõ, which means “six paths.” This is a Buddhist conceptualization of the mind. By passing through the six gates symbolizing riku-dõ, one might attempt to release their emotions in harmony with the solemn sound of footsteps. Depending upon the viewer’s state of consciousness and psychological condition at the time of experiencing MON, the sound will change shape in the brain. This work is a ritual for listening to elusive silence. MON and REI are separate works, but they are linked. The function of MON is to connect REI with the outside world.
Exhibited at ROHM Theater, Kyoto, 2017
Sound + mixed media, 39.5 x 39.5 x 29.7 cm
According to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, a joint project of the University of Hawai‘i at Mãnoa and Eastern Michigan University, by the end of the 21st century, 50 percent of the world’s languages will be lost. This also means the disappearance of minority cultures and customs, as well as oral traditions such as stories and folk songs. The four skulls of MUKURO chant in languages which were handed down from ancient times in the north, south, east, and west of Japan.
Digital audio, 2019
AMANE can mean both “circle” and “sounds from heaven” in Japanese. This piece consists of a soundscape woven together from a variety of sources both natural and manmade. The focus is on the sounds that are produced when elements clash and are confronted with the environment. AMANE’s initial concept was to mathematically design a primitive sound—something timeless and neutral rather than a sound that reflects a specific human emotion. The pitches and intervals of the water droplets might sound random at first glance, but they are actually the result of meticulous calculations. All the songs used in this piece were designed based on the chords used when playing the shõ, an ancient Japanese reed instrument. These chords were used before the ones we know from Western music history. They have been passed down to the present day unchanged.
Exhibited at W+K, Tokyo, 2017
Sound + mixed media, 30 x 30 x 30 cm
SAKU consists of twelve loudspeakers inside a spherical object representing the moon. Each speaker produces its own sound, enabling listeners to experience a multitude of combinations depending on their position in relation to the piece, which mimics the phases of the moon. On the bright surface of the sphere, the speakers emit a sound symbolizing lightness. On the shadowed side, the sound symbolizes darkness. At the border between the two, where lightness and darkness meet, the disparate sounds play in harmony.
Pray (from Spiritual Computing series)
Mixed media (computer mouse, LCD monitor, single-board computer)
These pieces are from the body of work entitled Spiritual Computing series. Positioning two optical mice in specific alignment triggers the interplay of their optical sensors and causes their cursors to spontaneously move. When we discovered this, we thought, ‘a miracle happens if we pray.’ The two connected computer mice looked like praying hands facing together. For this show, we created updated versions using the miracle mouse. The pieces question the relationship between the physical and the information world in a spiritual way.
Dividing a thing into hollow and substance equally #1
Collaboration with Satoru Higa
Exhibited at NTMoFA Digiark Gallery, Taiwan, 2018
In Japanese, the phrase kyojitsu tobun means “dividing a thing into hollow and substance equally.” In the traditional Japanese art of flower arranging, called kado or ikebana, the flowers are considered “substance” and the space between them is considered “hollow.” Both of these elements are given equal importance, which moves a piece toward its aesthetic essence by finding harmony in space. In this artwork, I am exploring those same con- cerns of space by using flowers as a motif to represent that which we humans can never really completely control.
A Mirror of the Audience’s Mind
— An interview with Ray Kunimotxonemo
When did you first arrive at the synthesis of sculptural objects and sound that we see in this exhibition?
It started with the piece SAKU, which I made in 2017. Before that, I’d been working with traditional multi-channel audio, where the space is surrounded by speakers.
And that’s the usual way to fill a space with recorded audio?
Yes. It’s typified by home stereo or movie theater systems. In each room that uses this method, there’s an ideal listening spot—but it means that for the optimum experience, the listener has to hold still in that specific point.
Whereas your work invites the audience to be in motion.
I like the idea of musical artworks that actually en-courage you to move your body around them. This gives you a free point-of-view rather than only a single vantage point.
What are your primary thematic concerns?
My main theme is the decomposition and reconstruction of sound and space, or physicality and the act of listening to sound. In Japan, where I’m from, there’s a history of blurred boundaries between spaces where music is played and spaces where it is not. Music in Japan frequently coexists with the sounds of nature, such as insects or the wind. There are also these Japanese garden decorations that use the flow and the sound of water, like the suikinkutsu and the shishi-odoshi.
Oh yes, I love the sounds those make. I imagine you first heard them when you were a child. Were you attracted to art when you were very young?
I didn’t become aware of art in general until I was in high school, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I was strongly influenced by it. I joined a technology arts collective as a sound artist. I’d been having doubts about continuing my songwriting, recording, and concert work—but then I learned to create installation art by flattening the fields of computer programming, electronics, video, and architecture.
I’m interested in the piece MUKURO. It reminds me of a memento mori.
MUKURO was created for an exhibition in Kyoto, which is the ancient capital of Japan. It is located in the center of the Japanese islands.
You’ve written that MUKURO was inspired by the fact that so many languages are disappearing from Earth all the time.
As I thought about the heart of Japan and pondered the unstoppable modernization of Japanese society, I thought of fading languages.
There’s a kind of melancholy to that. How much do you consider the emotional impact of your work on the viewer?
I want people to feel the power and supple beauty of just being there. I don’t want to lead them to a specific strong emotion. It is ideal to bring a meditative mindset. I work with the hope that my art will be a mirror of the audience’s mind.
Which sound-art ancestors do you admire?
I’ve been influenced by many artists in many ways, but Ryuichi Sakamoto inspired me to pursue a career in music. In addition to his recordings and concerts, he staged numerous installation pieces. He has a great philosophy on sound. But it might be artists from other mediums, such as architects and tea masters, who directly influence my expression.
What are your favorite sounds in nature?
One is the sound of water. It’s not just about the general natural environment, such as the ocean, rivers, or rain. It’s also about everyday life, such as when I take a shower or cook, and it brings a consciousness of the larger cycle.
I’ve been listening to your record AMANE on Spotify. Do you have an ideal listening experience for people who encounter your work outside the gallery context?
In works that are not part of installations, it doesn’t get much better than when the music is integrated into the life of listeners. I hope that people listen to my music in the same way that they drink coffee from their favorite mug.
Born 1991, New York City
Raised in Tokyo, Japan
Lives and works in Brooklyn
Ray Kunimoto’s artworks employ unique 3D sound systems and technology to create intimate connections between the audience as they see and hear the work, and the space in which the work itself is situated. These aural experiences and physical objects utilize the tools and traditions of a variety of fields including composition, engineering, sculpture, installation art, and performance. In the melding of such discrete disciplines, Kunimoto invents entirely new vocabularies that synthesize sensual stimuli in both uncanny and soothing combinations. Kunimoto’s range of thematic obsessions is equally diverse, drawing upon ideas of nature, history, decay, growth, language, and the rich culture of his ancestral land. Always at the forefront of his work is a tireless exploration of how the audience in a gallery space can become more aware of their bodies and movements in relation to not just the work, but the room. As viewers circumnavigate Kunimoto’s works, they undergo a journey of sound, sight, and touch. With the work included in this exhibition, Ray Kunimoto makes the bold declaration that he intends nothing more than to join the storied lineage of artists such as John Cage, Brian Eno, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. We believe he is well on his way.