St. Cecilia celebrates the sight of music

It seems logical that artist Joseph Grigely would feature lipreading as a central theme in his work; after all, he has been deaf since childhood.

By Kate Shepherd

It seems logical that artist Joseph Grigely would feature lipreading as a central theme in his work; after all, he has been deaf since childhood. In St. Cecilia, his new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Grigely explores the divide between language and communication.

Using a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, printmaking, and photography, Grigely’s work makes the audience more aware of the difference between communicating with and without sound. The exhibit’s exploration of language and communication is thoughtfully done, making the audience contemplate what it might be like to go through life without hearing.

The exhibit features work from throughout Grigely’s career, but the centerpiece and namesake of the exhibit is his 2007 work “St. Cecilia.” Inspired by watching a choir perform on television during New Year’s Eve 1999, Grigely created a piece of video art that studies the differences between hearing music and lipreading it.

As visitors near “St. Cecilia” itself, the sound of Christmas carols grows louder and louder. Upon reaching the installation, viewers see a huge split-screen video featuring the Baltimore Choral Arts Society chamber choir singing three classic songs, one of which is recognizable from The Sound of Music. The screen simultaneously shows two different images of the choir singing; both screens appear to show the choir singing the carol viewers are hearing.

However, on the right side of the screen, the choir is not signing the traditional song heard by the audience, but one with lyrics that look similar to the classic when lipread. Grigely has taken the lyrics of the three traditional songs and written new versions based on lipreading.

For example, viewers hear the classic song “My Favorite Things” and watch the choir singing on the left side of the screen. On the right side of the screen, however, the choir sings “Raindrops on roses and whiskey on kisses…” but the viewers cannot hear what they are singing and can only read their lips. The MCA provides visitors with cards that explain the concept and reveal all the lyrics of songs sung in the video. The installation is eye-opening and does a great job of conveying the communication breakdown possible in lipreading.

The break between hearing and “seeing” music is something Grigely explores throughout the exhibit. In another section, he displays pictures of blues, classical, and rock performances taken from the arts section of The New York Times. The captions have been cut off the clippings, allowing the viewer to observe the emotion in the faces of the musicians as they perform, according to an interview conducted with Grigely about the work.

Grigely also juxtaposes the written and spoken in several works appearing in the exhibit. The first room features several framed pieces of large, multicolored paper, each with a name or word written on it. In the middle of the room, several speakers hang from the ceiling. From each box, voices with different accents, vocal inflections, and pronunciations continually repeat the name of Ed Ruscha, another contemporary artist, whose name is written on a piece of paper hanging in the room. Hearing how differently each voice pronounces Ruscha’s name shows how many different spoken interpretations can come from a single written word.

There are several walls covered with Post-It notes that have incomplete parts of conversations on them. For those unfamiliar with modern art, seeing multiple gallery walls splattered with multicolored Post-It notes might be strange. But for regular MCA–goers and contemporary-art enthusiasts, the piece is not that far out of the mainstream. It seems as if Grigely aims to make spoken conversations concrete by writing them down on paper. Looking at the notes shows how silly vernacular speech can be when written down instead of spoken. In another piece, Grigely puts paper covered with spoken conversations in picture frames and places them on a table. Seeing words instead of pictures in a frame catches the viewers’ eye, opening up a comparison between the written and spoken word and visual images.

At the MCA, Grigely succeeds in making intriguing observations about all forms of communication. St. Cecilia is a well produced, thought-provoking exhibit that definitely deserves a visit.