Anyone moving through the Nordic Impressions exhibition will have encountered Norwegian artist Tori Wrånes’s surreal multimedia work Ældgammel Baby (Ancient Baby). Whether you are entranced by its perpetual orbit or repulsed by its gargoyle-like ugliness, there is something unmistakably rapt in Wrånes’s dreamlike vision. The figure is not quite human, yet seems to be spinning in the amniotic fluid of modern human life: sneakers, oversized raincoat, and a shock of hair like a kitsch troll. Corporeal sounds emanate from the character, too, which appears aching to be heard and understood, if only we had the means to interpret its otherworldliness. The character’s groans sound pre-linguistic, echoing Jacques Lacan’s notion of the “object voice” or Julia Kristeva’s Chora—vocal utterances that articulate pure sound loosened from denotative meaning, like the sounds that babies make before they acquire language and culture. Voiceless and “othered” from such systems, the character’s seeming distance from the human lends a primordial character to its sounds. Cloaked in the heavy sonic affect of reverberation, they feel more elemental in their resonance, like the mysterious drone sounds of planetary vibration or the groaning tensile shift of tectonic plates. The sensation is that of being immersed in a sonic and visual deep-time, an eternal recurrence which is amplified by Wrånes’s conscious multi-layering of temporalities; you are both there in the vivid materiality of the present, yet absorbed within the longue durée of mythic or archaic time.
There is another ancient means by which Ældgammel Baby seeks to communicate with us. It makes music. At points in the work, the character is seen blowing through a flute-like instrument, producing a deeply uncanny sound which echoes through the galleries in Nordic Impressions. Flutes are the most ancient musical artifacts, with archaeological examples of hollowed bone flutes dating from 40,000 years ago found in the caves of Germany and Slovenia. Is this bewildering yet tender moment of music-making simply another means of displacing our perceptions of time? Perhaps there are deeper art historical implications at stake, too; gestures toward the complex history of musical iconography in visual art, from the representations of instruments in Greek and Roman vase painting, to the domestic interior scenes of music-making in Vermeer and beyond. Often the depictions of musical instruments in sculpture and painting of the ancient past served as metaphorical symbols of Neoplatonic harmony; music as a representation of the aesthetic ideals of order and proportion. Yet in Greek mythology, it was flute that signaled the purely sensuous and moral danger of the god Dionysus. In Titian’s famous evocation, we see the Satyr Marsyas flayed alive for his hubris in challenging Apollo’s rational, celestial music of the Lyre with his passionate, discordant sounds on the Aulos (a flute). Perhaps, then, Ældgammel Baby is a floating Dionysus? A strange, unknowable god creature bound by irrationality and chaos, forever spinning in ritual abyss. However, Wrånes does not foreclose the notion that the Dionysian may also represent a utopia, a dreamlike vision of freedom from the strictures of convention, shedding light on the human condition and what we choose to represent about ourselves in our daily lives. “We are all trolls,” Wrånes has said in interview, “when visible, we try to show and present our best sides, to be happy and pretty. I am more interested in what happens when you turn off the light.” When the light turns off, it is the materiality of sound that we are left immersed in, enveloping the spectator in traces of an aural past (real or imagined) resonating in the acoustic present. What might we see in the echoes left behind?
—Jeremy Ney, Director of Music at The Phillips Collection