With When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, and Sonic Arboretum, two new distinct exhibits that cast an intimate eye on the human relationship with nature and sound, the ICA has juxtaposed portraits of American vision and straightforward innovation.
To stand in the midst of When the Stars Begin to Fall is to stand beneath the turning skies in the fields of rural Virginia. Interwoven sounds of nocturnal animals and whispering trees travel through each room of the expansive gallery, adding context to this spiritual commemoration of the American South spanning the 50 years since the apex of the Civil Rights Movement. This soundtrack, titled “As I rest under many skies, I hear my body escape me,” was crafted by audio artist Kevin Beasley. His piece explores how a place and time can be displaced and revisited; a theme shared by many of the multimedia works from the 35 African-American artists brought together for the exhibition.
When the Stars Begin to Fall is unique in that, for several of the artists, it will be the first time their art is being displayed in any kind of professional capacity. Expansive, exuberant pieces examining themes of American domesticity, black culture, and Southern folklore have been produced by midwives, herbalists, incarcerated victims, mental illness sufferers, and healers hailing from different generations and diverse backgrounds. Many of them are self-taught, having stumbled upon their gifts later in life like Marie “Big Mama” Roseman, who, in her mid-seventies, began producing intricate, mystical quilts that preserve her history and experiences in vibrant color.
The title of the show references an African-American spiritual that celebrates the everyday majesty of morningas well as serving as a metaphor for the visionary journeys that led these common people to their personal “awakenings” as artists.
In the final room of When the Stars Begin to Fall, another assemblage of sound bleeds through the open doorway leading to the ICA’s West Gallery: atmospheric violin strings and the unmistakable whistling of composer/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird.
In the immersive Sonic Arboretum, a collaboration between Bird and sculptor Ian Schneller brings together an original 50-minute composition that Bird recorded in the reverberating depths of a canyon and 36 colorful horn speakers of varying sizes and forms, each handmade by Schneller in his Chicago studio using compressed recycled newsprint, Baltic birch, and collected dryer lint.
Sonic Arboretum is composed of seven movements of varying moods and character. Each horned speaker serves as a channel through which individual sections of Bird’s composition play, resulting in a multifaceted collection of sound inspired by the biological sonar that animals like bats use to perceive space that they otherwise cannot see. As the sounds echo around the room, emanating from every corner, the music invites visitors in, taking on an intense, emotive quality that could only be achieved through the use of Schneller’s unique sculptures. Schneller calls the project the result of “mad visions,” and explains how he hopes one day to grow Arboretum to a larger collection of 96 channels that can theoretically be fed by composers placed in various locations across the globe using apps on their smartphones.
While the two shows share nothing on the surface level in terms of style and execution, both succeed in celebrating the irrepressible will to create from a diverse convocation of talent. When the Stars Begin to Fall completely disposes of the perceived line between highbrow and lowbrow art. It presents self-taught unknowns and formally trained artists side by side, celebrating the diversity of the Southern aesthetic tradition and calling viewers back to the land with pieces that blur the boundary between fantasy and reality, spiritual and corporeal. In the same vein, Sonic Arboretum makes music into a living, emotional force, the movements taking shape, commanding an uncommon complexity of feeling and a certain immediacy that feels wholly organic. Experienced separately or together, the exhibits are nevertheless united in portraying what magic human hands can create. They’re the perfect precursor to spring in a city that seems perpetually locked in winter’s grasp.