Via New Statesman
By Robert Hardy
Installation - Robert Hardy, bass guitarist of Franz Ferdinand, is astonished and delighted by a daring venture at the V&A
An afternoon free in London and we were invited to the "Shhh… Sounds in Spaces" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was the afternoon before we were appearing on the Jonathan Ross show. We'd flown in from Munich very early in the morning after a string of German dates.
I'd only been to the V&A once before, with my art college while studying for my foundation course. I remember how, on that trip, the big exciting place everyone was looking forward to seeing - being young, fame-hungry art students - was the Saatchi Gallery, and my memories of the V&A were thin. This made the prospect of going again more enticing; doubtless I would appreciate it far more after a few years of maturing and being able to wander around without the pretensions of an educational agenda. Spending an afternoon quietly looking around a museum could not be a greater contrast to how we've been spending our days of late, and it was an activity we were all welcoming.
The concept of "Shhh… " fascinated me: the idea of walking around wearing funny infra-red headphones that trip pieces of music and sound created by artists and musicians in response to the room you are in. Amazing! I'm a big fan of headphones in general - the way they can totally isolate you from your surroundings and focus your thoughts, be it while walking down the street with an iPod or in a gallery.
The pieces begin playing through the headphones when you enter the room, and so long as nobody else passes the sensor at exactly the same time as you, the piece becomes your own. Only you are hearing what you are hearing at that precise instant, and although I was aware that my companions were hearing the pieces at roughly the same time, it still felt like they belonged to me. It begins to feel like you're having a private audience with the artists, following in their footsteps as they conceive their works and able to hear the finished pieces simultaneously. (One thing I really enjoyed was passing other visitors in the halls and corridors who weren't wearing headphones and feeling smug - a favourite pastime.)
Jeremy Deller's piece, Celia's Tour, is a recording of a young girl's description of and commentary on her favourite objects to see and draw in the China room. It's exciting to listen to the reactions of a younger museum visitor to the pieces on display. Celia manages to couple together an obvious appreciation for the aesthetic with a child's naivety, imagination and excitement - something often lacking from the mindset of museum visitors.
Water Walking Symphony by David Byrne, featuring flushing loos and various expulsions of liquids, plays in one of the toilets and is genuinely funny and effective. I love the idea of Byrne walking around the museum and then choosing the toilets as inspiration (even though they are particularly grand-looking toilets).
The artists are such an eclectic mix, a very eccentric choice for a group show. Gillian Wearing's piece introduced me to the voice of a man to whom I could listen all day. She recorded various people's reactions to a grand, ground-floor room transplanted from a Jacobean house in Bromley-by-Bow, east London. The man whose interview she chose to use works at the V&A and describes the personal connection he feels with the room: the way that, when walking around the museum, he alters his route so as to pass through it; the way that the sound of his footsteps on the wooden floor reminds him of his prep-school days. This leads him on to recollections of his schooldays. For me, the Bromley-by-Bow room will for ever be connected to this man's fascinating stories and the idea of him crying as a boy because he "hadn't been born in the past". I really can't think of a work I have seen recently that has been this open and engaging.
The exhibition altered the way I see the V&A. The associations I made while on my foundation-year visit have been replaced by a personal excitement about the place and a connection with the pieces of sound and music I heard. It was a wonderful way to clear my mind during an incredibly hectic period. After we left the museum, we travelled to the BBC. Arriving there and wandering around the web of corridors, it was clear what the BBC is missing: infra-red headphones.