Rothko Chapel performances: Jacob Kirkegaard “A CAPELLA” and Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello “The Spaces Contained in Each”

…to my right a purple rectangular painting is flanked by two black and slightly narrower canvases, the color in these paintings is “full bleed.” In the two other groupings, as well as a single narrow painting on the entry wall, the paintings have a narrow border in a dark color. The mute regularity of Rothko’s paintings in this famous chapel surprises me again on this, my second visit. I think I expected drama, and blatant anguish. But unless you bring it, little of either is present here.

A kind of clarity is manifested by natural light that feels grey and wintry, and despite the heat of Texas July, I shiver. The chapel’s high plaster walls frame Rothko’s paintings while also allowing them to recede from my attention. The walls provide the grey I noted earlier, and the tone of this color matches in intensity the darker tones of the canvases. The audience is dressed mostly in earth tones and blues, with occasional fearless brights: a yellow folding hat pushed low over sunglasses on one woman, and a surprising orange collared T-shirt on a young man. The three largest of Rothko’s panels are set back in a niche. This arrangement nods to the idea of an altar but resists this interpretation.

Jacob Kirkegaard records the sound of the space in real time – in our time – and then plays it back into the space; he captures the resulting resonances in a second recording which he also plays back and records. Through this repetition I become aware of the half-life of sound. For example, when once a person coughs this involuntary sound is repeated regularly and it deteriorates each time but remains present unto the end. I think of a Ben Patterson performance I saw in Los Angeles: in a darkened gallery space, Patterson recorded audience members stating either a name or a single syllable and then played this back, continuing to record and replay until identity was lost in the resulting cacophony. (I do not think that Kirkegaard is quoting Fluxus, but neither do I think that any artist’s intent should be one’s guide to experiencing their art.)

Layers of sound are built, and a history of time that repeats and alters. Sonic interventions from the audience, of which there are several including the above mentioned cough, insist that we acknowledge our presence as human visitors to the space of this room and also to the space of Jacob Kirkegaard’s work. I am thinking here of a contrast to Kirkegaard’s contribution to the main exhibition, which comprises four passages of video with sound recorded at Chernobyl, and which feels much more about absence. By documenting in his video the lack of a human presence – of an ongoing human “now” – in the radioactive place, Kirkegaard captures the continuous presence of history like a metaphorical fly in sonic amber.

Jacob Kirkegaard moves quietly and with evident deliberation, manipulating dials on his amplifiers and filters. The soft humming increases in volume and in pressure and in my mind it becomes an object, perhaps some kind of cube suspended in the space. I think now of sound traveling through space, and how it might change with time and distance. I think of Stanley Kubrick’s moon base and my senses give to the drone a kind of beat, a pulse. Weirdly, now I want to dance. As air fills my Eustachian Tubes and I sway slightly, the resonance of Rothko Chapel fills my head.

♦♦♦     ♦♦♦     ♦♦♦     ♦♦♦     ♦♦♦     ♦♦♦     ♦♦♦     ♦♦♦     ♦♦♦

Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello now undertake the very human project of playing records in the chapel, does this act confront Mark Rothko’s cold, imperfect paintings? Both Philip Johnson’s space and Rothko’s art are modest in nature, rather than overtly sublime, and the two sound artists’ funky records, Bakelite knobs and switches and hand-done repetitions match the paintings’ modesty. This meeting of modesty with modesty helps me clearly see Rothko’s hand in the brushstrokes of his paintings and to sense this famous man’s fumbling effort toward understanding.

Throughout this performance I remind myself to look up, and around, and to concentrate on the paintings. The curious and curiously beautiful sounds that I hear from Roden and Vitiello provide just the right distraction for my critical mind to relax and appreciate the spare and even severe art. I think now that Mark Rothko worked very hard to keep at bay the expressionistic impulses of his earlier work, with their impossible-not-to-admire colors and suggestive, reassuring, fuzzy lozenge shapes. Here, in the chapel, what is evident is lack of shape, and the colors are held to two or three: grey, purple-ish and blackish. It is as though the music has helped me to quell my ego, I no longer find so little in this place; instead I look around and find openness about the difficulty of communicating. I think Rothko put away his famous tools like a youth putting away his toys; I think that he envisioned a space where communication fails and I think he succeeded. Without color, without shape to guide me, I am left on my own to find a way.

With their sound and their music, Vitiello and Roden are struggling with notions of communication. That they bring to the void of Rothko Chapel their inscrutable and possibly nonsensical grammar and rhetoric is right on. If nothing else, this space reminds us (well, me anyway) that the tools of language can – must – limit our possibilities for understanding. In their individual practices these two artists might be asking such questions as “What if I capture light as sound?” and “How can I translate the ineffable into matter without nailing it down?” To my mind, Rothko’s paintings and Johnson’s chapel present similar questions about light and about the ineffable. As clouds move overhead everything in this room changes and changes again. The paintings come alive, as do the shadows and the sharp corners of the room.

As If They Were Not There, sound art in the Rothko Chapel:


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