Inserting contemporary artworks into historically beautiful venues can be problematic. Often works are outshone by the sites that they try to engage with. A more effective strategy, as artist Caroline Devine has discovered in her recent exhibition, is to keep visuals to a minimum and instead engage another sense.
Devine’s ‘Poetics of (Outer) Space’, on display at Perrott’s Folly, built in 1758 in Edgbaston, Birmingham, was developed in collaboration with Ikon Gallery and timed to coincide with the University of Birmingham’s Arts and Science Festival. The work comes out of Devine’s 2014 Leverhulme Artist Residency with the Solar and Stellar Physics Group in the School of Physics and Astronomy.
Her work is derived from data collected from NASA’s Kepler mission which recorded the frequency of light emitted from stars and exoplanets. This light frequency data was then coded, transforming it into sounds that can be heard with the human ear; that can be layered into compositions by the artist and interpreted as both sound and music.
Speakers are located across four of the Folly’s beautifully dilapidated rooms and its small exterior courtyard. Shrill electronic notes, crackly static noises, delicate metallic chimes and more insistent percussive beats fill the building romantically, eerily, spilling into the outside space. While each of the artist’s speakers contributes its own particular set of sounds, these echo and overlap vertically along the Folly’s steep spiral staircase. Visitors are drawn up the stairs, moving through a shifting, spiralling soundscape that fills every nook and cranny of the Folly’s intimate rooms. The soundscape connects the listener of the work to distant places, now almost graspable. The work also reflects the way that the specific physical spaces of the Folly are navigated. Rooms stacked on top of one another are visited on both the way up and the way down the staircase, and this revisiting of spaces enables memories of each sound piece to overlap with what can be heard at any one time.
It is fitting that the work is being exhibited during the week of the UK’s clearest partial solar eclipse in years. Such otherworldly, astronomical phenomena, difficult to comprehend and seldom considered by most of us, are suddenly brought to the fore by both Devine’s work and the almost-contemporaneous eclipse.
Perrott’s Folly is, of course, frequently discussed with reference to J.R.R. Tolkein, as the supposed source of inspiration for his ‘Lord of the Rings’ two towers. Much of the Folly’s history is disputed; its purpose indeterminate and mythologised. In ascending the tower, accompanied by the sounds of Devine’s stars, there is a palpable sense of the visitor and the Folly itself reaching upwards toward the unknown: a sense of yearning toward the mysterious and all those things that are so much bigger than we can imagine.
Anneka French, 2015