The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon is an unlikely context for my work. It is a grandiose building with enormous high-ceilinged rooms, and creaky floors. All is crammed full with classical art from many different periods, visually dense and culturally enormously loaded. But for someone working with sound the biggest drawback is the pervasive drone of air-conditioning arriving through grills in the floor that kills the detail in every sonic frequency. It is far from the elemental contexts that I am more often drawn to. Nevertheless, I found a series of pieces that inspired me, seven Fayoum portraits in the Egyptology room on the second floor, and a space that inspired me equally, the Cuisines Ducales on the ground floor. Once we had blocked off the two air-conditioning grills, its stone vaults and floor created a resonant space. Being November it soon cooled down but that was a price I was happy to pay. My project was to bring the Fayoum portraits and the Cuisines Ducales together with my own works. I gave the following text to the public.

7 sounds for 7

These seven portraits Ė no, letís make the imaginative leap straight away and call them people Ė these people, these seven people, lay in the dark for nearly two thousand years, close to the dry bones of their previous lives. Then they rediscovered the miracle of light, only to find themselves in the strangest of surroundings, a museum room in a land far from their own being stared at by people they surely couldnít recognise and being discussed in languages they donít understand....

Iím not the first to say this, but somehow these personalities transcend their representations. Thatís why I said make the leap. We see through the portrait to the person. They seem like us. Ordinary people, they could be our neighbours of today.

Probably when alive they didnít even know each other. We donít know enough about the provenance of each portrait to be sure. But to me, they seem not so happy in their glass cases upstairs in the Egyptology room. So I invite them down to the cuisines ducales. Perhaps they will be more at ease surrounded by stone. Why do I think this? Is it because it seems more tomb-like or because I imagine the food of the kitchen feeding them too? I donít know. I project them side-by-side on to the vaulted ceiling. Maybe this is their first meeting. Maybe itís a meeting that wasnít possible or even wanted in their lifetimes. And yet I am imagining and proposing a much more complicated meeting. First, we look at them. They return our gaze. We look at them as individual people, but we also look for patterns. How like or unlike the people we see today are they? I decide to give them sounds, I break their silence, because after all silence is only revered if we also know sound. So I give them sound. I give seven sounds for seven people, but this is symbolic, which is to say each of the seven can share the sounds, itís not one per person. And the sounds Iíve chosen are sounds they would recognise, timeless sounds that are made in our present but resonate with human experiences from long ago. That is my particular mediation, my attempt to coax the seven into a relationship with us here and now.

Then comes a broader mediation. With my colleagues we relay the seven sounds back upstairs to the portraits on wood, hopefully to enhance their lonely lives. Only then do I dare let them encounter the other sounds of today, the sounds that they wouldnít have heard in their own time. We add the sounds of voices and of machines and mechanical musical instruments, that is to say our recent past, then the sounds of digital transformation, our present and future. Digital sounds which we are far from familiar with ourselves, even though we call this the digital age. All this is relayed back to the cuisines ducales as both a gift and a challenge to the seven. And with this gift, we arrive at some sort of equality with them, even though they have been dead for two thousand years, even though we use them for our own purposes. We offer them a chance to look at us now and to reflect on how like them or unlike them we might be. Of course, we can only imagine their response, but if we trust our imagination maybe we can allow the seven to grow and learn too, and perhaps we can appreciate the tiny moment of time travel that this exchange has allowed. Perhaps like that we can share with them.

Text : Will Menter

Portraits fayoums : copyright Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
Photos : Francis Jay


film of 7 sounds for 7

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