If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, music is in the ear of the listener. This is not Bill Fontana’s statement, but it could well have been. The North American artist — who is known for his pioneering experiments in sound art in legendary places including London’s Somerset House — has a new mammoth sound project.
Entitled “Shadow Soundings” and curated by Pedro Gadanho, the work was specially commissioned by Lisbon’s MAAT museum, which won the LCD Best Museum Architecture of the Year prize this year. The installation is made of soundscapes and screenings taken from the neighbouring iconic 25 de Abril Bridge in Lisbon. Occupying the oval room of the museum, the work mixes live and non-live recording and footage from different corners of the suspended bridge.
This is not the first time Fontana has worked with a bridge. In 2006 he used the Millennium Bridge for a work at London’s Tate Modern, and in 2012 he used the Golden Gate Bridge as a musical instrument, with real-time views under the roadway expansion joints. “I’ve always been interested in bridges as structures within themselves,” he says about the uniqueness of sounds of every bridge. “The first time I experienced the 25 de Abril Bridge was when I came to Lisbon in 2016. I was in my hotel which was just under it and I was really struck by the shadows and that’s what actually named the piece.”
The varied network of shadows the bridge produces turns the footage collected by the artist into perplexing images that sit between abstract and figurative. The camera has focused on various points including the river itself, directly below the bridge platform, and the red suspension mechanism. That meant that Bill Fontana had to walk along the platform, as well as up and down the whole structure. Luckily, the artist doesn’t have vertigo. “I’d go there in the morning spend a few hours until the staff would take break and I’d come back in the afternoon,” he says. “I was doing lots of sound and video recordings, and it’s amazing how the sounds of this bridge are so distinct to the one from Golden Gate Bridge.” Indeed, the bridges may look similar, but the 25 de Abril Bridge has train transit, which adds a whole new set of sounds.
Combining all of these elements in a single space makes for a musical and visual experience that is both calming and enervating. Sounds like passing cars have an oddly soothing effect, but are punctuated by the vibrations from the train transit. Most of the images and sounds are meticulously choreographed, but one panel and channel are live, adding an element of unpredictability to the piece. Bill Fontana has the ability to deconstruct cultural signifiers in a way that both minimises and amplifies their influence. There’s no better place to apply this talent than Abu Dhabi, which also happens to be the location of his next project.
“Shadow Soundings” is at MAAT in Lisbon, Portugal, until 12 February 2018.