With latest group show, Ren Society gets the silent treatment

The Renaissance Society’s new group exhibit, aptly named Several Silences, explores how silence functions in society and the extent to which it affects everyday experiences.

By Mitch Montoya

Modern life is noisy, especially in a city like Chicago. Blaring car horns and chirping cell phone ringers are an ever-present reminder that no place is immune to the roar of daily life. At the Renaissance Society’s newest exhibit, however, noise has been expelled completely as artists delve into the complexities of silence.

The collection, aptly named Several Silences, explores how silence functions in society and the extent to which it affects everyday experiences. Rather than defining silence as a lack of communication or sound, these artists see it as an alternative form of communication. In their investigation of the ways silence can alter a space either predictably or unexpectedly, Several Silences’ artists bring home the power of silence.

Gran Fury’s installation piece, “Silence=Death,” illustrates the negative effect silence has had on the fight against HIV and AIDS. Fury’s large-scale light installation is comprised of a glowing pink triangle and bright neon letters that read “Silence=Death.” For Fury, the proliferation of AIDS has been exacerbated by the stigma against the disease, which prevents people from openly discussing it.

In a similar but far less political manner, Ryan Gander explores the detrimental effects of silence on his own mind in “A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor.” The piece is composed of 100 glass spheres dispersed around the gallery floor. In each orb, Gander has laser-etched an image of a blank sheet of paper to reemphasize the sense of loss he experienced when the paper slipped from the table. Here, silence stands for the loss of his motivation and ideas, both essential to the creative process.

While artists like Fury and Gander have a negative take on silence, Harry Shearer demonstrates how silence can serve as the medium for a deeper understanding of another person. Shearer’s installation, “The Silent Echo Chamber,” contains seven TV screens, all showing politicians in the quiet moment just before a filmed interview begins. While these public figures—including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—are usually experienced by the public solely in heavily edited and occasionally rehearsed appearances, these candid moments are unmediated by scripting or post-production manipulation. Although the people in the videos remain silent, their behavior in front of the camera seems to reveal something about their character. Whether they are fidgeting with their clothes, smiling awkwardly, or reading the newspaper, the figures in Shearer’s piece reveal a candid, intimate side of themselves that formal speeches or interviews sometimes fail to capture.

Jonty Semper’s audio recordings demonstrate the emotional power of silence during memorial services. In these recordings of moments of silence during Armistice Day and Princess Diana’s memorial service, the faint ambient noise of birds chirping and children crying highlight the solemnity and stillness of the occasions. Semper conveys the immense effect that silence can have on a public space and the great tribute that it can pay to those that have passed away.

The artists at the Renaissance Society have taken the universal, though increasingly rare, experience of silence and interpreted it in dynamic and profound ways. It may seem that ring tones and road rage honking are inescapable, but Several Silences reminds us that even as the world gets louder, silence will always remain.

Several Silences’ website