The Whisper Heard
24 September – 16 November 2003
The Whisper Heard is Imogen Stidworthy’s first exhibition at Matt’s Gallery. This sculptural installation using video and sound, centres on the spoken word in relation to different notions of meaning and communication. Sounds and images are configured into three acoustic zones in the gallery, focused and reflected within the adapted architecture by loudspeakers and a parabolic dish.
The artist has been working closely with two people that deal with language in very different ways. Tony O’Donnell has aphasia, a condition following a stroke that affects the language faculty of the brain. Severin Domela, aged three, is in the process of learning to speak. As neither participant is able to read, their relationship with words is primarily oral.
In The Whisper Heard, the participants respond to a narration of chapter twenty-eight of Jules Vernes’ nineteenth-century novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. Here, the main character awakens from unconsciousness having lost his companions in a maze of underground tunnels. Alone in silence and darkness, he rapidly loses all sense of relation to the outside world and his trust in his senses. Eventually, the faint echo of his uncle’s voice restores his sense of orientation and light. He sets off in the direction of the sound but falls down a hole, and is again knocked unconscious.
When listening to the tale, Tony voices his thoughts as he searches to locate meaning for the words he hears. He grasps the ideas of the narrative in mental images, but not the individual semantic expression. For him, bringing these ideas back into language means finding words again in an elliptical process of searching and translation. Severin repeats what he hears, engaging when he can with linguistic meaning and when he cannot, focusing on acoustic qualities of sound and shape. He, like Tony, speaks ‘a narration which is never allowed to reach its destination’. In The Whisper Heard, the affirming power of the narrative is diverted as language is brought into a realm of uncertainty. The spoken word is dismembered; sound, image and linguistic meaning are pulled apart. As the participants work through the text, a new form of grammar comes into operation through the grain of the voice and visual gestures: hands making images, and words and voices making shapes.