SEEING SOUND, HEARING TIME
On view at M WOODS in Beijing through August 2021, “Seeing Sound Hearing Time” is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s (Japanese, b. 1952) first exhibition in China, featuring a new series of large-scale, audio-visual installations.
To say that Ryuichi Sakamoto has a special relationship with music would be an understatement. His is a rare, immutable connection that has culminated in a decade’s worth of meaningful work, left for the rest of us to pick through and understand. This kind of vaulted singular genius doesn’t always boast a varied creative output as many musicians and visual artists choose not to deviate from what they feel they do best—luckily for us, Sakamoto is an arch innovator. It’s an exercise in imagination to go back to Sakamoto’s colorful techno-pop of Yellow Magic Orchestra and realize that within this trio is the same musician who would later go on to produce the apparently, and perhaps superficially, more serious and almost academic oeuvre. It’s even better to view these apparently disparate poles anachronistically, to see the techno-pop of YMO through the lens of the 2017 experimental album async, and vice-versa. The hidden joyfulness and passion of async become visible, as the technical prowess of YMO is thrown into relief. Having an anecdote forever attached to your name may be an indication of getting a spot on the Mount Rushmore of musical greats, and Sakamoto has more than a few. One recent fable tells the story of Sakamoto at his favorite New York restaurant. “The food is amazing, I love your restaurant,” Sakamoto told the chef, “but you have to let me change the music, the current monstrosity of a playlist ruins everything.” The restaurant obliged of course, and a new bespoke set of songs was gifted to the restaurant, permanently affixing Sakamoto’s signature of quality. Occasional star appearances on NTS radio give a glimpse into the listening habits of Sakamoto. His choices are characteristically diverse—J Dilla, Autchere, Yves Tumor—but all linked as musical maestros. “To me, recording is like fishing. You know, catching fish and then I get back home and start cooking with the fish.” If you listen to enough of Sakamoto’s words you come to realize that he loves metaphor. This helps explain why he often works on projects that are as visual as they are aural—using one element to compliment the other. It’s part of an obsession with physical instruments as much as with the tones they produce. For Sakamoto, a piano that washed up on the shore after the 2011 Tōhoku Tsunami had been imbibed with the traumatic experience itself, offering new styles of sound. Similarly, Sakamoto famously explained that when a piano goes out of tune it is simply the wood flexing to return to its original state. This visual aspect of Sakamoto’s work plays directly into his current exhibition “seeing sound hearing time” at M Woods in Beijing. It’s Sakamoto’s first exhibition in China, in which a series of specially built audiovisual installations take over both the interior and exterior of the museum. The tsunami-wrecked piano is given the spacious presentation it deserves. On the museum’s rooftop Sakamoto has installed Sensing Streams, a machinelike system that converts data from invisible electromagnetic waves into images and sounds displayed on screens and speakers. What kind of metaphor might Sakamoto want us to uncover here? Though that’s open to interpretation, what is certain is that as with most of Sakamoto’s work, he’s turning what we can’t see or know into forms and ideas that we can.