If one cups their hands to their ear, they might hear the engine of a plane, their own disembodied voice resonating through the room, or the sound of cardboard creaking under its own weight. One might hear century old whispers of British soldiers, or perhaps the laughter of an audience enthused by the comedy unraveling in the great Greek amphitheater. One might simply hear a lone visitor clap, in a futile attempt to activate Amalia Pica’s monumental sculptures.
The works staged in her exhibition, ears to speak of, explore predicaments of the body, transmission, mediation, communication, and the intrinsic relationship between technology and human biology.
Military technologies erected in the interwar period provide the source material for Pica’s new project. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan pointed out that “War and the fear of war have been […] the main incentives to technological extensions of our bodies” (47). In Kent, one can still observe from a distance the remains of colossal monoliths which once served to capture and amplify the distant and ominous hum of oncoming aircrafts. Planted in the picturesque British countryside, two of the dish-shaped structures are elevated on trapezoid platforms, while the third consists of a long curved wall. Situated by the water on the coast of Denge, the ruins are today nearly inaccessible. However, during the 1920s and 1930s, any listener could position themselves directly in front of each device, where the incurved shape of the reflector would naturally concentrate the sounds.
Recalling the acoustic logic of the Greek amphitheaters of Delphi and Epidaurus, the designs were meant to create excellent hearing conditions which enabled a clear projection of frequencies. In theory, speed and directionality could be calculated based on acoustic gain and subtle sound textures. As many have reported, however, the devices were largely untrustworthy as they not only picked up the droning of enemy planes, but also the ambient noises of local traffic. Made of concrete, these massive experimental listening devices were early conceptualisations of what would later become advanced radar technologies, among a plethora of other sensory enhancing apparatus which emerged in the middle of the century.
“Men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves”, states McLuhan (41). In fact, all media – a widely encompassing term – are not merely extensions of the body, but have become increasingly integral to it. The advent of photography, for example, deeply transformed the ways in which we perceive our surroundings; it enabled “photographic seeing” and encouraged us to think photographically, to borrow from Susan Sontag (97). Following a similar logic, one can easily imagine the profound effects the acoustic mirrors and other gadgets would have had on the psyches and bodies of their users.
Pica’s Ears (2017) are upturned toward the sky in the hopeful expectation of a volatile echo. In spite of this, the elegantly stylized yet austere constructions are inherently deaf. The hollow forms fail to fulfill their purpose; realised in stiff cardboard and brown tape, they actively and intentionally mute surrounding sound waves.
Scaled down from the original monuments, the Ears adopt a more humble, human quality. Through a shift in scale, they somehow distance themselves from the realm of stark military architecture, and enter that of theatre, becoming akin to manmade props and maquettes. A visiting choreographer confided in me that she had fantasized about borrowing these sculptures as movable decors for her performances. Indeed, their artifice strangely channels the aesthetic of early 1900s theatre sets such as those designed by Lee Simonson and Edward Gordon Craig, which were often virtually abstract, unlocalised, angular and built entirely of papier maché, plywood, and cardboard.
Evoking their artificiality by divulging their own fabrication, both Pica’s Ears and sets designs play with bodily and sensorial perception in space. Theatre facades – especially New Stagecraft three dimensional sets – are almost always skewed in scale; buildings are rendered smaller than normal, objects larger, caricatures of themselves.
Discarded hearing aids of smooth marble, granite, and soapstone are scattered haphazardly through the room. Like theater props enlarged for the visibility of the audience, these biomorphic sculptures are aggrandized to the point of absurdity, highlighting the discrepancy between form and function. The impossibility of putting these ear pieces in one’s ear cavity produces an uncanny discomfort. Viewers find themselves in the middle of a surreal scene, among theatrical objects which seem to invite an auditory, haptic, and corporeal interaction. The scene demands a completion through engagement and simultaneously denies the satisfaction of a response. The gap between the body’s expectations and the reality it faces when those are not met generates a certain anxiety. The clap goes unheard, the whistle is not echoed, and the hearing aids are too heavy and precious to even lift off the ground.
Pica is undoubtedly aware of the works of renowned media artists such as Tacita Dean who, in 1999, produced an in situ film(hyperlink) capturing the reverberations on the walls of the mirrors, and Tim Bruniges, who replicated the concave giants in a gallery space by embedding microphones and speakers in their center, thereby creating a cyclical, self-generating sound piece. However, Pica’s interest lies not in the purpose or functionality of these objects – their ability to produce noise, but rather, in the engagement of the viewer’s body and the polymorphous affective responses they instigate and arouse.
The most subtle work in the exhibition pratically blends into the wall, consisting of two life-sized gypsum hands joined in the ubiquitous gesture that symbolizes listening. Extended Ears (2017) – its title winking at and owing much to McLuhan – is described by the artist as the most distilled, and most intuitive technology. Hands held to the ear often signify eavesdropping or close attention; brought to the mouth, they function as an archaic megaphone. Equating limb and apparatus, exploring the potential of ineffective machines and disembodiment, Amalia Pica’s poetic prosthetics bespeak the simultaneously intimate and complex relationship between bodies and their mediations in the last century’s technological landscape.
Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media; the Extensions of Man. The MIT PressCambridge, Massachusetts and London, England; 1964.
Susan Sontag. “The Heroism of Vision”, in On Photography. Picador USA, New York; 1977. 85-115.