Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Incredible Siren

Ray Lee: Siren
Auckland Festival
Motat (The Vehicle Gallery)
14,15,17 - 22 March 2008 @ 6.30, 8.00 pm - and also 5pm on weekends

This unusual sound/light performance is quite an extraordinary sonic treat. Totally immersive, it involves over 25 tripods of different heights set up in a hall, each with a turning arm that has tone generators, speakers and LED lights at both ends. The creator, Ray Lee, and his assistant, dressed in baggy Beuysian felt suits, David Lynch haircuts and looking like demented boffins, slowly negotiate their way through the maze of tripods, setting off the rotating arms so that the individual spinning drones gradually coalesce to form an immense cathedral-like cacophony of layered harmonics. You are free to wonder around the space outside the spinning oscillators and test the acoustics at varied locations and different heights.

Two thirds of the way through this forty-five minute performance the lights go out and all you can see are the little white safety lights of the safety barriers, and inside, the turning red LEDs, like drunken fireflies impaled on sprinklers. Then the two men start lowering the machines’ speed so the mix is less frenetically brittle and more a creamy, soothing mid-bass. One by one the machines are turned off – the sound thinning accordingly - and the red lights with them.

The sound Lee constructs with Siren reminds me of the great Robert Fripp and Brian Eno looped guitar/drone albums of the early seventies, ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Evening Star’, but much denser. So thick are the interwoven hum-clusters that you don’t hear melodies. Instead you get the pealing of chiming bells skipping along above the thick rumble of what sounds like pulsing pipe organs. When the machines are at full speed the pitch of the top layer rises and you get the delicate chiming quality, but this dissipates when the speed is lowered. Something like the Doppler Effect is involved (I think) with the swelling pitch effected by the slower turning arms.

Visually the massed tripods and spinning arms look like receivers of coded transmissions sent by some mysterious alien power. Yet in an early modernist, vaguely Futurist way, the mechanical format looks archaic and slightly comical – as if made of curtain railings for a Flash Gordon episode or early Doctor Who. However despite these minor distractions, the sound is superb. It is clear and rich and sensitive to listener movement, just as in turn the listener becomes sensitive to local machine movement. A very good night out.

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