That is what is at the installation’s heart; an ode to pain that you can touch, listen to and interact with.
Rae-Yen Song’s ≈≈aaaaaahmaaaaaa≈≈, a new installation for FACT’s Let The Song Hold Us exhibition, bridges the gap between the quiet observation of physical, passive objects and immersion through sight and sound. Using music, ceramics and a stained-glass piece that moves when your phone screen is pointed towards it via a QR code, Song works through a personal family story.
The name of the piece encapsulates the experience of it. The mathematical ‘almost equal to’ sign (≈) bookending a call out to a mother (aaaaaah maaaaaa) tells us that what is being communicated in this room is almost equal to a familial, presumably maternal, pain. And that is what is at the installation’s heart; an ode to pain that you can touch, listen to and interact with.
“The pain is in the room, but it is also in the past – we are standing in her consideration of it.”
At the centre is some stained glass of a plant-like creature sitting on top of mosaic waves, with sad, crying faces coming adrift from the central image. When you watch the piece transform through your phone screen, the tears fall thick and fast, until the glass is completely submerged with water.
Eventually the water is replaced with an almost-human figure, expressing an exclamation mark in a speech bubble. Song tells us: something has happened here, and we are witnessing the shock waves. The pain is in the room, but it is also in the past – we are standing in her consideration of it.
“Plant heads come adrift from their stem in the stained glass, and heads float away from the centre until they are drowned by tears.”
Around the room are ceramic guardians that hang from the ceiling, lit up against a dark background. Their palette is largely beiges, oranges and reds – the colours of a flame. They watch us, watching them, and watching the other artefacts of ≈≈aaaaaahmaaaaaa≈≈. They are, crucially, without a body, as only their heads stand in contemplation and as a warden. This reflects one of the most striking aspects of the installation, which is the act of splitting. Plant heads come adrift from their stem in the stained glass, and heads float away from the centre until they are drowned by tears.
In a glass case a range of mediums, from textiles to paint, also communicate the head as distinct from the body. Two cushion-like stuffed faces sit on either end, embroidered with tears and positioned away from one another. Paintings show faces as distinct entities, as well as a floating figure that is dripping water, collected in a bowl by a crowd beneath, and a duck carrying a bejewelled weight on its back.
Other pieces in the case are abstract colour studies and items like a ceramic spoon and bowl. Feeding, nourishment and connection join the glass items together, indicating the event that Song is working through in her artistic practice is a severance of these good, homely things. This is perhaps the saddest aspect of her installation, for me. The spoon, the bowl, the cushion becomes corrupted by a story that is indelibly woven into her past and is impacting both the present and the future.
“A haunting, feminine chant washes over you as you take the pieces in, clearly illustrating that both physical pain and sadness are at the centre.”
As the title of the whole exhibition Let The Song Hold Us indicates, there is a sound element to the installation that brings the individual elements together, while also providing a harmonious, tonal backdrop. A haunting, feminine chant washes over you as you take the pieces in, clearly illustrating that both physical pain and sadness are at the centre.
In its own way, it reminds me of a room in The V&A museum filled with almost overbearingly huge tapestries, and I make sure to visit it every time I am in London. There aren’t any instructions that visitors should be quiet, but I’ve never heard anyone in there talk at a normal volume – the absorption of sound from the textiles give it a church-like hush that is in direct antithesis to the next room over, the musical theatre room.
Tinkles of stage music can be heard every time the door is opened between them, but the tapestry room invites an almost reverent quietness and sense of contemplation. When you feel it is time to leave, walking from one room to another is dizzying in its sensual difference.
“Rae-Yen Song has created a space for contemplation that speaks to her personal and cultural experiences”
Despite the movement and the sound elements to ≈≈aaaaaahmaaaaaa≈≈, the experience of the viewer is not dissimilar to that of the quiet solitude of The V&A’s room of tapestries. The artefacts are linked together under themes that naturally invite reflection – pain, physical splitting, the breaking up of familial ties – and the roles of the stained glass and its ceramic guardians encourage a reverence that the hulking great textiles of the past do in their stoicism.
The music is not an accidental tinkle from an opened door, but rather something to reflect and move around within; a temporal backdrop to a room that offers its pain up to you. Rae-Yen Song has created a space for contemplation that speaks to her personal and cultural experiences, and sits well within her larger body of work.
Jessica White is a PhD student at University of Liverpool and a writer. Her work has been featured in i-D, Dazed, The Face, The Irish Times and BBC Radio 4.
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