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Groundless Sound: Luba Drozd at CPM Gallery

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The only thing that physically touches the ground in Luba Drozd’s site-specific installation, The fields would slowly overtake you at CPM Gallery, is you. Sound waves continually bounce off of every surface, however. Created by minimalist sculptures of industrial steel channels and micro motors the artist programmed to control the frequency and speed of their interactions with suspended piano strings, the installation is poetic and intimate. 

Whereas an immersive installation at a huge institution might make a person feel small and lost, Drozd’s installation feels like it’s meant to be experienced by one or two people at a time. I feel one on one with the work, which rarely happens in museums.

There are no speakers to amplify the sounds; everything reverberates through the materials and the architecture of the gallery, which is also part of the curator Vlad Smolkin’s home. Subtle light animations are projected onto the walls, creating false shadows that alter the visitor’s sense of time and space.

Born in Lviv, Ukraine, Drozd immigrated to Baltimore in 1997; I met her shortly after, before she moved to New York, where she is currently based, in the early 2000s. The fields would slowly overtake you is on view by appointment at CPM Gallery through September 10. 

I spoke with Drozd and Smolkin about the installation, the presence and absence of objects, and how ephemeral light and sound affect our perception of space.

 

Elena Volkova: I appreciate how the gallery is your home, Vlad, but it also feels like this unique experience for the viewer. That was one thing that immediately impressed me. And also, the relationship between the objects and the way they exist in the space and invite the body to participate and activate the space. There is an interesting kind of a figure-ground relationship, but the concept is explored deeply and invites questioning of your own figure (body) in the ground (space). The gallery then becomes a vessel for the work, and a viewer experiencing it activates it. I found myself touching the walls and searching for physical manifestations of the sound in the environment.  

Vlad Smolkin: I think it’s a perfect place to start a conversation about the show, using a concept like figure-ground, which comes mostly out of painting. Luba and I were talking about the show, having all of the objects floating so there’s nothing on the floor that the person is walking on. And I think some of your response has to do with that decision that we made about the installation. 

Luba Drozd: Yes, the person feels kind of trapped in that space, like you’re not tall enough, you’re not small enough, you’re trapped in this constantly changing perception of the space, and your own perception changes. That was my purpose of having them levitate, but also leave a small third of a body kind of space empty. So that’s where all the sound is clouding up on the bottom of the floor as a void.

EV: Can we talk about the role of void in your work, Luba? It comes across as a strong element. 

LD: I feel like, to have an extreme perception of the sound in space, you have to have a moment of void or emptiness to perceive the richness of the sound and it filling the space. So, the moments of emptiness allow for you to focus more and have more understanding of sound particularity, to appreciate the details and the texture of the sound. I think that’s the role of the void in the work. Vlad and I talked about that space when you’re in between two worlds. 

VS: A lot of visitors open the door and act as if they’re entering the void. Where’s the show? What’s the show? And it’s been really amazing to watch the distance between that point and when that void starts to be filled, as you said, with the texture of the sound. And then they’re like, Holy shit, is that what is going on? It’s like they’re entering a different kind of relationship to a space. A lot of the decisions that were made contribute to that as well, the fact that you’re coming in from a residential street contributes to the remove of the experience you actually have in the house. But mostly it’s the work and the richness of the sound that starts to envelop the temporal experience of the viewer or listener. 

LD: Right. The sounds are located throughout the building; you kind of have to go on a hunt to discover the sounds, even though you can hear them at the same time, but you can hear them louder or softer in different areas of the gallery. And the space itself is a musical instrument, including the window shutters that modulate the strings and make them a bit more taut. 

 

EV: Let’s discuss the objects and their relationship to space, but also making the objects and making the installation. What was interesting to me was that you could see the steel and the strings, and the motors that activate the sound, but the rest is hidden. But there’s an implication that all the pieces are connected (and Vlad revealed that all of the pieces are connected). I kept thinking about you making these pieces, Luba, and installation as a labor. Let’s talk about the relationship between hiding and revealing, and your priorities. How would you like your piece to be experienced visually?

LD: What has happened previously (or how people perceived my work) is that I make everything obvious. There’re wires you can see; as you said, you can see the motors. And still, the fact is that the sound is created via vibrations; it’s not prerecorded, it doesn’t have speakers. All the sound is analog vibration resonance, a reflection of sound, even if everything is presented. There is confusion in the space about what’s happening overall with sound.

I used to be more concerned about making everything hidden, like the wires. I wish I could hide the motor, but it seems not very important. What’s important is the experience of hearing and seeing the space, and how the pieces relate to architecture, to natural light, to how the person moves through the space as they enter it, and how the parallax changes as the person travels through space. Some things align; a lot of things are aligning with corners, depending on your position. These alignments are how I structure the work. Certain pieces should be viewed from a certain angle, in my mind. So everything is constantly connected: perception of visual information and sonic audio perception.

EV: Talk about how you two worked together. How did you decide, Vlad, on Luba’s work for your gallery? Why did you think it was a good fit? 

VS: That’s both a really simple and complicated question in terms of how these things come together. In a very general sense, the site specificity of Luba’s work aligns with my vision of what a gallery is. Every exhibition is site specific. Sometimes we place that fact further back from the immediate perception of the viewer, but Luba brings that to the front. So this show aligns with the kind of participation that I want people to have with any exhibition. Luba’s work makes that inevitable—and I think that mostly has to do with sound. Because you can close your eyes but there’s something about sound that goes into your body, even if you plug your ears. So, I think the psychic aspects of art in general are operating in an overt way in her work. That’s interesting to me. 

EV: Luba, is there anything you found specifically interesting about working with Vlad? Were you excited to collaborate?

LD: I came up once or twice to take pictures and 3D-scan the gallery so I could have an idea [of the space]. I made a 3D model and looked at it and thought about how the space operates with the viewer in there. And then at the beginning of July, I came up to Baltimore and stayed for two weeks off and on, installing the work. 

We haven’t worked together before, and it was great. I felt like there was a grounding that happened in our collaboration on making this piece, or just working with Vlad; everything seemed aligned. There was a centering of thought that happened in making the work. The space is incredible for it; there are sonic pockets in space and that’s really great.

VS: To add to that: anyone that’s been here knows the way the sound bounces off the walls and the spatial dynamics of the architecture are perfect for working with an artist dealing with sound, with architecture, and with industrial materials. You’re addressing the bones of the house and using the building itself as an instrument. I also have a background in music and have paid attention to what sound does in the space. So when Luba started installing her work, I was bringing my background, my history with sound into it as well. And I was fascinated by it. I mean, Luba heard me humming and singing and snapping my fingers, walking around trying to relate to the sounds that her objects were making through my own processing system. And a lot of people do that, as you’ve seen. I loved when Joyce Scott was singing here because I feel like you don’t usually walk into a gallery and start singing, but Luba made it an invitation. It was incredible. 

LD: That’s absolutely stunning. I have no words. That was spectacular. I’m really grateful that that happened, actually.  

VS: With Joyce, she came in and was like, Where’s the show? And then in 5 seconds she just totally plugged in, and then started making vocal sounds in almost a call-and-response way with the work. And she made a point even to say when we were sitting and talking that she didn’t consider Luba’s installation to be a backdrop to her as a solo voice. She was thinking about it more like her participating with the sounds that were there. And that’s obviously an important distinction. I had a sound artist comment on the video that we were both reverberating the world. Everybody’s vibrating the world. 

 

EV: Luba, would you like to talk about the choice of materials and how they relate to your bigger ideas? 

LD: I wanted to use elements that are used in the construction of buildings, as parts of it are transparent or ripped out, or offset—seems like the building is in motion or imploding or exploding. I use construction materials a lot. Sometimes I’ve used granite too, which is both construction and non-construction material, just natural material. The lights structure space always, and most architects consider the light as a building element in space. Or that’s what I think they do. And the bass piano strings—I used them for a while—they are more familiar to me than possibly other instruments’ strings because I played piano. And somehow it works, it’s the right length and timbre and just works for me as a structural element, visual element, and sonic element. The steel sheet that makes that roaring, beautiful, sonorous sound. 

EV: The sounds are really similar to upright bass, or a deep cello sound. And it created this music that is solemn and somewhat tragic, playing on those references of the outer space, Music of the Spheres, if you will. There’s something universal but also somber about it. Was that intentional? 

VS: Luba and I had talked before for a long time about the sounds, and certainly space sounds and cosmic sounds being a part of the equation. It’s good that that comes across. 

LD: The title of the show is based on a book called Nothing: A Very Short Introduction; it explains the expectation of how the physics of light work and how it actually works, how your expectations of the physics of space work and how they actually work and the dissonance between them. I was thinking a lot about the sound of outer space, or the stars that make it. I love the sound of cello. It’s beautiful. 

VS: I think it’s a perfect title—The fields would slowly overtake you kind of describes what happens to people as they come in. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a show that does that in such a clear and composed way. One thing we’ve talked about a lot is the question: Where does the sound you make reside? Where does the composition reside? You can think about composition musically or as sound art or field recordings. I still am trying to spend a lot of time with the sound, trying to place where it is for me, and I think it is kind of in the middle of all of those things. Certainly it’s a composition, and you were very finely tuning it; it repeats itself every 4-5 minutes, and the relationships are very clear and defined. To me that’s a super interesting part of the show. Or, when Elena was here, we were leaning our ears up to the wall where the sound is totally different; it’s like listening to a song in different dimensions of understanding. And that felt really unique to me because the filter in that case becomes the plaster of the wall and the resonance on the inside of that space. 

LD: One of the first pieces I did with the sound, the pieces with vibrations, the sound was almost inaudible in the space; you couldn’t hear it at all, you had to listen to the walls. That was the idea. I always think about how it sounds within the walls. How it sounds if you put your elbow to the wall and how you feel that and experience the residual sounds.  

EV: My friend was with me at the gallery, and her hearing spectrum is much higher than average. So she was picking up on these residual sounds, which was really cool. 

LD: I can hear them sometimes when the sound is going away and it leaves a few traces, like it is composed of many layers, and then it slowly dies, but there are whispers of it that still linger. I found it interesting that in the 360 recording, you could hear it better because it’s so sensitive, louder. You can hear them particularly broken down into individual channels. Maybe because it’s a digital recording and it makes it clearer, or something. The residual sounds are incredible. I’m so glad she heard them. 

 

EV: I also found myself navigating and being aware of one sound ending and trying to anticipate where another is going to start. So the space, that void in between the sounds, was a really interesting place to be, because I was so acutely aware and present, anticipating where the sound is going to come from next. Let’s talk about the role of light and your choices of incorporating the lighting animation. 

LD: The main lighting part were the shutters; some of those were closed and some of them were open. They act as an instrument as they prop up the strings, but they also let in the light that hits the sculpture across from the windows in a way that creates a determined shadow.  The shadow creates a rectangle, like a 2D, 3D, 4D rectangle in space, that’s also a sound. So that one part of the metal is the side of the rectangle, and the shadow is a continuing side, and it slowly dissipates into the void. There is no end; everything is floating and everything is dissipated into the void. The sculptures are floating, and there is no edge to the rectangle. Everything is suspended and everything is open-ended and slowly dissipates into the nothingness, unknowing of things.

At the entrance, the beautiful window, which is partially obstructed with the sheet metal and the steel, also throws the light into the space, and a single-channel projection that I calibrated to blend with the natural light creates a similar shadow situation on two other sculptures and partially the stairs. I created fake shadows that slowly move and are animated, as if the time is passing by. If you notice it, and not many people do, it’s very subtle—it creates a different perception of time, because light travels as the sun sets. But the animation timing is quicker, but also almost imperceptible. And you start questioning not only your scale, because things are kind of large in this void-space, but also your scale as a person in the world and your timing as a person in the world, as opposed to how objects perceive time. 

VS: There’s no gallery lighting. Luba has been talking about the natural light, light and shadows that are being cast in the architecture, and so when you’re coming into the space, it looks like the lights are off because the animation is very subtle. And depending on the time of day, the animation is more or less subtle. People who come here when it’s dark out had a completely different experience. But I think that also is playing with expectations quite a bit for people who expect to come into a gallery space: the lights are on, and it’s “showtime.”  Here, you’re having to adjust to the natural light in the space which is going to be darker than it is outside. And I think that also starts to tune you into a different kind of experience. 

LD: You can feel all the sounds with your whole body, which is incredibly important to me. You can feel the light with your whole body. You inhale the light, the sun rays, the UV rays, etc.; these vibrations affect your body. I wanted to equalize the sonic and visual experience: the light and the sound. They’re all waves (that goes back to the physics book: light waves and sound waves).

EV: Luba, please share your final thoughts on the installation you’ve created at CPM, and perhaps how this installation follows the trajectory of your creative work. 

LD: I feel like it’s the most cohesive, structured, and sonically clear work I’ve ever done. I’m incredibly excited and grateful that it happened. Everything I wanted to do happened with this work—the composition of it, the way that the space is. So you can experience it throughout the space and there are pockets that you can travel to and pockets that obstruct some of the sounds. I just listened to it over and over for a while when I was making it, and it sounds incredible. And Baltimore is just a wonderful city. Everybody’s so kind. Baltimore has a history of music embedded in it, and that is why I think it’s great that the work is here.

 

*****

 

Luba Drozd: The fields would slowly overtake you is on view at CPM Gallery through September 10.

Images courtesy CPM Gallery

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