The series of works "In Place" is to a large extent influenced by my reading of the works of Henri Lefebrve, in particular his two books "The Production of Space" and "Rhythmanalysis." Lefebvre dissects the issue of space, what constitutes a space, how we can create a space, what the social elements are of a space and how we interact with a space on these different planes. The daily rhythms of life, the dynamics of time passing and spaces changing over time, both on the grand historical scale from erection to ruin, as well as on the daily level all shape how space is formed and experienced. And these are precisely the issues I want to explore in spending time in different spaces, investigating them, experiencing them and then reflecting about them in the form of a text, with a focus on how these places sound. By playing back a recording of me reading these texts I bring the sound and atmosphere of places through my words and the gestures of my voice to the exhibition space, infusing it with the presence of these places, creating a space within a space. "In Place" exposes what remains at the juncture between the entity of a space and the presence of my voice, embodying my experience of that space in all its forms.
For "In Place: Grossmünster " I spent ten AM to four PM on October 20, 2011 the Grossmünster church in Zürich's old city.
Built in a Romanesque architeictural style from 1100 to 1200, the Grossmünster is probably Zürich's most famous landmark. The church is particularly known for its role in the birth of the Swiss-German reformation, as initiated by Huldrych Zwingli.
In Place: Grossmünster, Zürich
The Grossmünster looms before me on this rainy day, cloaked in the gray sky and heavy clouds drifting out over Zürich's old city towards the lake. I enter the church, passing from daylight into the early morning gloom of the soaring arches and bare stone walls. Sound swims around me and I feel submerged in a deep, rich, resonating body. I take a seat in the pews on the main floor and try to adjust to the relative silence. The day outside leaks in from time to time as a tram passes by, a motorcycle revs its engine, someone sounds their car horn. Soon the small sounds around me manifest themselves, like miniature explosions going off. Every scrape of a shoe, footsteps over the wooden floors, someone settling into a pew nearby, all these sounds momentarily fill the church with a wrenching violence.
And then the quiet descends again. Silence does not really exist here, but a heavy lack of any identifiable sound now hangs over the interior of the church. I hear the blood pulsing in my ears, I imagine the sound of air currents slowly coursing through the church, of everyone's breathing magnified and filling the space like one giant breath. The air seems at once to be spinning around me and pulsating with the energy of all these barely audible sounds filling the void. Different hues of gray light stream in from the ancient glass windows. At times we seem to be floating in a murky bath of slowly changing light. A lone candle burns up on the second level of the church in the red and blue light of Augusto Giacometti's stained glass windows.
The church's bells start to ring. They seem far away, as if coming from another church in a distant part of the city. I had expected the bells to be louder, sound more direct, filling the church with their reverberation. People talking nearby nearly drown out the bells, their voices echoing through the main hall. I get up and walk up the stairs to the second level. Crossing the wooden floor in front of the stairway my steps explode around me, try as I might to tread silently. As I pass under the first arch separating the ground floor from the second level, the acoustics change dramatically around me. Everything seems more controlled, warmer, less the sense of drifting in a sea of uncountable sounds. I continue walking towards the very front of the church and take a seat near the wall, directly below one of the two domes.
Off in the distance now, as if a million miles away, the main hall of the church surges with all its activity. It seems very few people come here to pray. Mostly tourists enter the main doors. They talk, their cameras click, they walk heavily over the wooden floors, high heels clicking briskly across the ancient stone. I guess the Grossmünster is just another place on their itinerary, as most of the tourists don't stay very long. They troop in, gawk at the Sigmar Polke stained glass windows, at the huge organ on the second level in the rear of the church, at the bare domes and the display of bibles in a glass case. Some of the visitors pay to walk up the bell tower and gain a bird's eye view of the city. Their voices wash over the main room like tides rushing in and out from sea. Waves of murmurs, laughs, now and then a loud conversation, ebb and flow out on the main floor as I sit under the furthermost dome and enjoy the brief appearance of sunlight streaming in through the soaring windows before me.
I walk over to the choir chairs and seat myself there. Here I am closer to all the activity out on the main floor of the church, and I can see all the people walking in and leaving, milling around in an aimless fashion, lost in the grand heights of the arches, the raw stone, the sense of nearly limitless space disappearing way up high in the shifting shadows. For a brief moment, the church seems empty, not a tourist in sight. The silence comes crashing down again, nearly taking my breath away. These dramatic shifts in sound levels exhilarate but also wear me down with time, each wave of silence something new to readjust to.
Out of nowhere I hear a choir singing, just one chord for maybe a few seconds and then they're gone. Why did they stop? Did someone close the door to whichever room they were singing in? Was I hallucinating? I start to feel spooked. Sitting in a church for hours is not without its occupational hazards. The atmosphere is so heavy here, like a weight pressing down on my body, on my soul. I don't feel comforted, more out of place, distracted by all the sound cracking intermittently around me. I'd like to hear more singing.
Towards midday the gloom begins to lift and a steady stream of visitors pours in and out of the main doors of the church. I imagine this will continue until I leave in the afternoon and begin to dread these coming hours of humanity trampling through these hallowed grounds. The small sound explosions are gone now, just this thick current of voices and footsteps reaching a kind of standing state of reverberation and agitation. The sense of space when I arrived in the morning is long gone.
I move back down to the main floor and experiment with sitting off to different sides of the room. Yet I quickly become distracted wherever I sit, with people constantly walking by, their voices swirling behind like trails of smoke. Eventually I return to the middle of the pews, placing myself back in the center of all the activity. I feel the room soaring around me, voices drifting up to the greatest heights of the church and dissipating there like vapor. In fact, very few people bother to sit down here at all. They walk about impatiently, looking for some image to consume, some information to read, some memory to take with them back home or to snap with their cameras.
The flow of people here seems independent of any accustomed daily rhythms. It's like the Grossmünster exists outside the normal transition of the day's passing. I slowly get used to this haphazard pacing and realize that perhaps this is what a church is for, to step outside the daily trials and tribulations, take a moment away from the day's course of events and just be still. Which is what I'm trying to do, though I'm certainly not doing nothing: I'm thinking the whole time, concentrating on how I am perceiving the space, thinking about how the sounds here effect how I feel in relation to the room around me, to time slowly passing.
I walk back up to the second level and gaze upwards towards the great organ, its numerous pipes decorated with golden angels sounding their horns. Someone has turned the lights on around the organ's keyboard and two men are talking nearby. They go away and then one returns and sits himself down at the organ. I'm not sure what to think about music here, this wasn't part of my equation, as strange as that might sound. And I guess it is strange, because shouldn't music be a part of any church? Shouldn't this have been something to expect, even to look forward to? It seems I was too caught up in analyzing my own perception to allow for the possibility of singing or someone playing the organ.
As I move back down to the main floor again a great deep tone fills the church, as if coming from the floor below and vibrating the main room with an amazing force. Everyone around me stops in their tracks, frozen in disbelief or anticipation. It takes a few minutes before the anonymous organist plays some long slow chords and then a melody. People slowly begin to sit down, as if preparing for an organ recital. This has been the first time today I've seen more than just a few people sit for any length of time, whereas for me the whole day has already been a concert of sound and I've been sitting here listening to it. The more the organist plays the more I think that this sound is an intrusion here. The tones cut through the air, bang up against the stone walls, snap back and forth from ceiling to floor. The music stops and starts, this is no concert, at least not the kind of concert these people sitting around me had probably hoped for. One by one they get up, return to milling aimlessly around the church, finally leave. The music proceeds haltingly. The organist seems to be improvising or perhaps just testing the organ to see if everything is working correctly. There is no structure, no direction, which seems to suit me better. The organ becomes just another intermittent sound, like the footsteps, the voices, an occasional noise from the world outside seeping in through the dense stone walls.
Bright afternoon sunlight fills the church. I make one last round from the lower floor to the upper and take a seat again under the last dome. I bask in the intense light and the sound of the organ floats like a cloud off in the distance in the main room. I'm drifting away in the warmth of the sun and the rich, deep tones of the organ's longest pipes, barely audible but vibrating my chest, as if growing from inside my body. Suddenly, a cloud passes before the sun and a momentary darkness fills the church. The organ has stopped too. I make my way through the sea of tourists and head out the main doors to go home.