Sound installation adds new dimension to James Turrell's Skyspace at National Gallery of Australia
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Sound installation adds new dimension to James Turrell's Skyspace at National Gallery of Australia

Artist James Turrell says his Skyspace at the National Gallery of Australia is about seeing, using space and light to change the way we perceive the sky.

But the viewing chamber will soon challenge another one of our senses – hearing, when sound artist Robert Curgenven's​ adds an extra dimension with a sound installation recorded in 15 of Turrell's Skyspaces across the world.

Robert Curgenven's new sound project Climata, recorded entirely in James Turrell's Skyspaces around the world, will have a public preview in the National Gallery of Australia's Skyspace from August 5-7.

Robert Curgenven's new sound project Climata, recorded entirely in James Turrell's Skyspaces around the world, will have a public preview in the National Gallery of Australia's Skyspace from August 5-7.Credit:Jamila Toderas

The Ireland-based Australian artist first became interested in recording in Turrell's Skyspaces when one was built at the Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens near his home in Cornwall.

He was attracted to the elliptical Skyspace's "very special" acoustics and approached the owner about creating a sound installation.

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James Turrell with Robert Curgenven in Kernow Tewlwolow Skyspace at the  Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Cornwall, UK.

James Turrell with Robert Curgenven in Kernow Tewlwolow Skyspace at the Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Cornwall, UK.Credit:CJ Everard

With Turrell's permission Curgenven has so far travelled to 13 of the 87 Skyspaces around the world to record the work using custom-made oscillators to create a sound so subtle most listeners don't even realise its electronically-generated.

Then, with little manipulation, the sounds are weaved together to create a piece called Climata which will be previewed in the NGA's Skyspace Within without from August 5.

"I play two sounds in there and it works with the resonance of the Skyspace, they resonate at a variety of different frequencies," he said.

"It makes it possible then to hear very easily the acoustics and the shape and size of the Skyspace.

"Essentially it moves the air in and out of the aperture the same way the air moves in an out of a bottle when you blow across it."

While the end result sounds similar to the subtle sounds heard in Turrell's Perceptual Cell, it's purely coincidental as Curgenven said he was yet to experience the NGA's most recently acquired Turrell work – instead his project is designed to engage with Skyspace acoustics.

"For some people it sounds like an organ or a bass piano note, I'm originally an organist so I tend to like organ registers in quite soft tones," he said.

"I find these things generally interesting when you're changing the way people perceive their environment through sound, it creates heightened awareness that may lead to people… perceiving space or time differently."

In June, Curgenven played Turrell recordings from 10 of the Skyspaces inside the Cornwall work and thankfully the veteran artist liked what he heard.

"He commented that he'd heard similar sounds in Skyspaces just from the modulation of people's voices," he said.

"It's good that the idea floats with him… my idea interrogates the same concept that he's dealing with in sound that he does with light."

Curgenven will record in the NGA's Skyspace the night before the hour-long preview and in October will travel to Stockholm for his final Skyspace recording before the project is released on CD by LA-based label Dragon's Eye Recordings later in the year.

He said audiences were becoming more open to sound art as it was given more attention.

"The tension between sonic arts and music is starting to dissipate the same way people have enjoyed abstract art for many years," he said.

"If I say music you're going to expect rhythm, melody, drama, but if I say sound people say 'oh what will this be?'."

While there are no plans to make the work a permanent installation at the NGA, Curgenven hopes to play the piece in other Skyspaces around the world.

  • Climata will be played from about 5pm to 6pm on August 5, 6 and 7 to coincide with the Skyspace's dusk light cycle. Spaces are limited to 24 people in the Skyspace at any one time so people are encouraged to attend early.

Clare Colley is Head of Audience Engagement at The Australian Financial Review. She was previously an online editor, arts editor and journalist at The Canberra Times.

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