Guest Column: Peter Clothier on Michael Brewster

Mount Wilson Observatory is launching a new Arts @ the Observatory program with a special exhibition of Acoustic Sculptures created by the late Michael Brewster, Saturday and Sunday, August 13-14, 2022 at 3 and 6 PM, with an additional event combining Brewster’s installation with followed by a night of observing through the 100-inch telescope is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 PM. Within Sound: The Acoustic Sculptures of Michael Brewster, will be presented in the historic and acoustically phenomenal Dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mt. Wilson Observatory. A lecture by Homer Charles Arnold (Archive Manager for the Michael Brewster Trust) will be presented at 4:15pm, between the two performances, and light refreshments will be served. Tickets are $50.00 each ($100 for Sat night) and are available for purchase online in advance or at the door. For more information visit https://www.mtwilson.edu/arts-the-observatory/brewster. More info and examples of Michael Brewster’s work can be found on his website http://www.michaelbrewsterart.com

Listen, from Different Points of View: The Acoustic Sculpture of Michael Brewster

Where am I?

What is
the nature of this place
I occupy
in space,
so strangely present?

What is this body that transports me here and there?

What am I doing here now?

And where do I go next?

These are among the fundamental questions that challenge us at the deepest level of our consciousness, once we strive to get past those seductive—some would say illusory— surfaces of the material world that so easily distract us. They are the questions, too, with which Michael Brewster uncompromisingly confronts us in his acoustic sculpture, if only we can clear our heads long enough to pay attention.

A visit to the studio can sometimes yield unusual insights into an artist’s work. Visiting Brewster’s, we first pass through the remarkable forest of his bamboo garden, now twelve years old and growing. He has planted more than twenty different species, from gleaming, ebony-stemmed giants to soft, green, sensual stems that are velvet to the touch. We can hardly walk through the quiet setting of this abundant grove without being aware of how alive it is with subtly shifting sounds—a luxuriant, natural, outdoor counterpoint to the interior studio space, austerely artificial, in which he creates his artworks. Bamboo plants are surely among the most eloquent in nature: they click, clack, and whisper constantly in the breeze, chatter quietly among themselves, and sometimes orchestrate whole symphonies of shimmering, arrhythmic sound.

Inside the studio, we soon become equally sensitive to sound amid the silence—but in a quite different way. In contrast to the lush, green growth outside, it is pristine and white here; the sound is controlled by a concealed stereo stack and a Juno 106 synthesizer. Brewster has always been intrigued by the artifice of art, and since the 1970s his work has played on that essential quality. There may be metaphorical references for individual viewers— the whistle or chirp of birds, for instance, or the throb of a human heartbeat. But the actual sounds he works with are insistently artificial, calling our attention to the created quality of the experience. They could not be described as precisely musical, however, and certainly not melodic. They have no standing outside of the specific, spatial environ- ment they define. They are simply the physical medium he employs, as others might use stone, wood, or bronze, to create the three-dimensional entities that he appropriately calls sculpture.

Nothing in art appears in a vacuum, and Brewster’s radical concept for his acoustic sculpture is no exception. Already in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were pioneers searching for alternatives to traditional art forms that seemed at the time to be in danger of exhausting their potential. In France, Yves Klein evolved the concept of art without form or substance, selling “zones of immaterial sensibility” in exchange for gold, which was thrown into the Seine, leaving nothing but a spiritual record of the transaction. In the United States, artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter De Maria were investigating spaces other than the gallery or the public plaza as locations for the three-dimensional sensibility, and were exploring the media of the phenomenological world.

In California, Robert Irwin led the way for a group of artists who would soon be known under the rubric Light and Space—artists as diverse as James Turrell, Michael Asher, and Eric Orr, whose primary medium was light itself; and Mowry Baden, an important precursor for Brewster, was pioneering work in which viewer participation and body awareness played significant roles. The purpose, for artists such as these, was no longer to create an aesthetic object but rather to awaken the observer’s consciousness to the nature of actual experience.

It was in the context of this ferment of experimentation that Brewster came to believe, as a young artist, that his own sculptural sensibility was not well served by that medium’s traditional visual qualities. His mission was no less than to save sculpture as an art form. “You never really see a sculpture,” he explained in a recent interview. “Sight is frontal. What you get is a sequence of frontal views. You can’t perceive it all at once, like a painting. I wanted [the viewer] to see the inside of things, and sculpture showed only the outside.” Abandoning the figural efforts with which he had started out, he began to experiment with installations of small lights, flashing in sequenced patterns out in the desert, defining fields of space. But this proved disappointing. “It was always less than what I wanted,” he comments, from this distance in time.

The transition from light to sound came in part on the inspiration of a single moment. Brewster recalls hearing, from the dinner table, the unmistakable, quirky sound of a friend’s old VW bug as it shifted into third gear on the street outside, and the sound brought with it a flood of simultaneous information about the world out there—from gearbox problems to marital disputes—in a quasi-Proustian epiphany: “It all came to my ears at once,” he remembers. And that continuum of information, that all-at-once quality of lived experience, was precisely what he had been reaching for in his art. Prompted by this awareness of the holistic embrace of sound as a sense perception, he began to speculate about its potential as a medium for sculpture and to experiment with the effects it could create.

The first outcome was a piece that involved thirty- five clicking devices—Brewster’s MFA exhibition at Claremont Graduate School in 1970. This was the first of a series of increasingly refined investigations into the possibility of creating lines in space by activating the directional extensions of sound, in a white-walled, three-dimensional environment that was otherwise devoid of stimulus. A simple click from a concealed device in one location, answered by a second click from an opposing wall, would prompt the observing mind to follow the path of its own imaginary line. Producing clicks from a number of sources, whether at regular or irregular intervals, would thus set up a complex though invisible “drawing” that would encompass the attentive viewer, engaging his or her full consciousness. The experience was one of being inside the drawing and of finding one- self, as one moved, in a different spatial relationship to different lines. The viewer could then, in a real sense, participate in the creation of the drawing at each instant by the simple act of changing his or her own location.

From this initial series of sound drawings Brewster moved on, in the 1970s, into the more richly textured field of acoustic sculptures. Given the way a sound travels through space, resonating and reverberating, bouncing off walls and ceilings in a slow process of decay, he found that it was possible to construct a kind of internal architecture that could be perceived by the human ear alone, without the lim- itations of sight. Starting first with single tones, then adding a second tone and a third, he worked over a period of years to refine and expand the perceptual potential of his ear and his understanding of how sound works in space.

The resulting pieces were exhibited in a number of museums and galleries, and were evidence of this increasing sophistication. Most, initially, were site specific. Visiting the proposed site in anticipation of a show, Brewster would take along an oscillator—an audio frequency generator that projects one sound at a time anywhere along the range of the audio spectrum—and put it to work to identify the acoustic properties of the space. Returning to his studio with this scientifically gathered information, he could then “build” his sculpture around the appropriate frequencies and ready it on audiotape for eventual installation.

In the course of three decades, there have been various technical improvements that have enabled Brewster to refine his capabilities. The purchase of the Juno 106 synthesizer in 1985 gave him the ability to work with several sustained sounds, for example—created by placing weights on the appropriate keys; and the transition from analogue to digital sound technology in the late 1980s increased his capacity to produce the rock-steady sound that gives his pieces their authoritative “solidity” today. Computers played their part: first a tiny Commodore 64, and later a Macintosh 8600 gave him greater precision and flexibility in editing.

But Brewster’s work, though generated by sophisticated technology, is not about the technology that produced it. Rather, it is about human perception and experience. For a while—in line with the “cool” of Minimalism and the heady intellectual discipline of Conceptual art—he chose to distance himself from any emotive associations, but more recently he has come to value them as a part of the richness of the experience he offers. He refuses, however, to make things overly seductive for his audience, setting out to engage sounds that might at first seem provocative, even confrontational. Some will be vaguely familiar, “like a vacuum cleaner,” he says, “or an airplane taking off.” Others will seem as alien as sounds from the far end of the universe.

Because these sounds may not be immediately appealing—and because he insists on viewer participation —Brewster typically uses an “On/Off” switch to activate the piece; he locates it on a wall removed somewhat from the entrance, hoping to capture our attention before we can make too hasty an exit from the space. It takes time to absorb the sounds, and more time still to see how they build a perceptible structure. This strategy also makes it harder for us to remain in one position, stationary, as we might in front of a painting or a sculpture. With Brewster’s work, movement is critical: “To ‘see’ an Acoustic Sculpture,” he once wrote, “we must shift our viewing habits from the ‘stand and look’ behavior to an exploratory ‘walk and listen’ approach, slowly walking our ears instead of moving our eyes.” On his compact disk, All of Before: Three Acoustic Sculptures (1996), he introduces each piece with the same quiet injunction: “Listen, from different points of view.”

And this is quite simply what we are called upon to do. The experience, like all profound art experiences, resists all attempts to reduce it to the grasp of language. It is, in truth, indescribable. Brewster’s work entices, rejects, embraces, puzzles, challenges—and eventually simply wins us over. If we listen, we are there. Thus, with oh so pretti, a recent work completed for the 2001 faculty exhibition at Claremont and included in the present show at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, we enter the space and find ourselves enveloped in dim light, in silent emptiness. The small black box of a wall-mounted audio speaker is the single visible object, aside from the small button nearby that says simply, “PRESS ON.” Follow the instruction, and the space is soon suffused with a single, sustained note, joined moments later by a second, slightly lower, then by a third. A fourth note shortly joins the mix, setting up a rich, apparently constant tapestry of sound.

If we step away from our first position, however, we find that the sound is anything but constant. Here, in our new position, is a whole new construct: different qualities of sound are suddenly audible, while others drop away or fade. If we shift, even from foot to foot, swaying our bodies through the length of their natural arcs, we notice these subtle changes. We begin to get a sense of the architec- ture of the sound, its different volumes and spaces in between. We walk ahead a few paces to another area, and the audible world is completely different again: what was a sustained, harmonic hum transforms into a surprising throb, taking our heartbeats along with it. Sound achieves human scale. And, as with all sculpture, we notice our own bodies now, the different weight and heft of them as they move through the different volumes of pure sound. If we pay close attention both to the sound and to our bodies, simultane- ously, we may notice how they begin to sing in harmony.

This is not easy work. It requires a willingness to drop out of our normal consciousness and into a state of heightened awareness. Adjusting to its peculiar demands, we are encouraged to slow down the usually frenetic pace of our lives, and pay undistracted attention to the here and now. Otherwise, the work will pass right over us, or through us, without affect. If we pay attention, though—as we might in nature to the subtle sounds of the breeze in a bamboo grove—we are rewarded with that great sense of the lightness of being, and of the awesome presence of what gives joy and meaning to our lives beyond the material. This is the eventual gift of Brewster’s acoustic sculpture, and the one we can take home with us once we have seen it: to offer us a whole new way of apprehending sound and silence, and of understanding how this simple awareness can contribute to our sense of where we stand in time and space. It helps us discover more about who we really are.

Peter Clothier is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is the author of David Hockney (Modern Masters series, Abbeville Press, 1995) and has published scores of articles and reviews of contemporary artists in international magazines. His current series of special events, “One Hour/One Painting,” has been sponsored by museums throughout southern California. https://peterclothier.com/

Originally published in the catalog for Michael Brewster: See Hear Now — A Sonic Drawing and Five Acoustic Sculptures at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) between February 16 and April 20, 2002. The exhibit was curated by Irene Tsatsos and initiated and sponsored by FOCA (the Fellows of Contemporary Art.)

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