Rolf Julius: Music for the Eyes

Robert Barry explores the subtle soundworks and concert scores of German artist Rolf Julius

By Robert Barry

Rolf Julius, Music for the Eyes, 1981, 3 pairs of speakers, felt, audio cables, CD player, dimensions variable. Photo: Rebecca Fanuele. Courtesy Galerie Thomas Bernard – Cortex Athletico, Paris

Sound art has come a long way in the five years since Rolf Julius died. After the Turner Prize awarded to Susan Philipsz in 2010 and the almost contemporary publication of Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence (2010) and Seth Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear (2009), and up to recent excitement over the work of Christine Sun Kim, the genre seems to have expanded and reoriented itself – and in many ways it has done so in directions that had been already indicated by Julius. For 30 years following the completion of his first soundworks of the early 1980s, the German artist continually developed points of intersection between acoustic phenomena, visual imagery and bodily experience that feel at least as pertinent today as they were when he plotted them.

Though Kim-Cohen’s book scarcely mentions Julius, the writer’s call for a ‘non-cochlear’ sonic art seems to be directly addressed by a work like Music for the Eyes (1981), which preceded it by a quarter of a century. Recreated for the present show, the work asks its audience to lie down on some carpeting and place two small loudspeakers, connected by a strip of felt to resemble spectacles, over their eyes. Long thin wires trail from this apparatus to a CD player at the end of the rug. Being brought into direct contact with the sound source engages a mode of listening radically different to the reserved connoisseurship of stereo hi-fi. Quoted in an interview for The Wire in November 2005 as saying that he hoped this piece would allow audiences ‘to look into the sound’, Julius himself would appear more interested in the quasi-synaesthetic metaphor and the physical situation itself than the delicate scuffling and howling sounds emitted (very quietly) from the actual speakers.

This is far from the only piece to work on its listeners’ bodies. Upon entering the gallery, you might think the various exposed speakers spread about the place were silent. But once you have heard them, Julius’s small musics will stay with you, even if they never cease to interact with the ambient sounds around them. The gallery staff told me that since the exhibition opened they had seen visitors squatting down, craning their necks, bent double and generally assuming all manner of unusual (for a gallery) physical postures in order to catch the subtle noises being emitted from Julius’s artworks. In order to experience Two Large Blacks (2005) I soon found myself crouched down on the floor, leaning perilously over the work to get a better earful. The title of this work could allude either to the two different speaker cones involved, or the sounds coming out of them, which – though still whisper-quiet – possessed sufficient heaviness (in a rumbly, gurgling sort of way) to make the graphite powder sprinkled on top of them dance just perceptibly in an ever- changing animated drawing in the air.

Elsewhere in the show, a series of roughly fringed red-and-black ink circles and squares on Korean paper are presented as a Score (2000) for some possible future concert, and, tucked away on a shelf in the office, a small bag of paint pigment with a speaker partially buried in it emits a continuous sizzling sound, like shortwave static or a high-speed data transfer (Echtgrün–hell, 1994). In each case, the dialogue between sound and vision points towards some pure conceptual poetry hovering between the two. 

Galerie Thomas Bernard – Cortex Athletico, Paris 12 December – 6 February 2016

This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of ArtReview