Forget the art slides and flying machines at the Hayward. The most controversial show of the summer, the one that’s sending some critics into a Victor Meldrew-ish tailspin of invective, involves six paintings and a few loudspeakers. You’d think, given the outcry, that someone had drilled holes in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ and glued super woofers to the back, so that the dudes in fur coats might appear to rap. They haven’t. In the basement spaces of the National Gallery – now a dark and rather mysterious labyrinth, thanks to all the soundproofing – half a dozen paintings are, for a couple of months, being spotlit in rooms to themselves while the thoughtful responses of sound artists and musicians are relayed through discreetly positioned speakers.
The real shock is not how distracting it all is but how much sound concentrates vision: there’s a clarity here that’s spine-tingling. Turner Prize-winner Susan Philipsz has gone for one of the collection’s biggies in selecting ‘The Ambassadors’, Holbein’s early Renaissance puzzle picture. This image is loaded with allusions to wealth, learning, the role of religion and (with its distorted skull) mortality. Philipsz runs with the idea of the lute that has a broken string as a symbol of discord to create a piece for violin that creeps round your own skull with an intensity that glues you to the spot. Jamie XX, meanwhile, translates the basic components of Théo van Rysselberghe’s pointillist ‘Coastal Scene’ – dabs of colour – as burbling electronic beats, building an intricate, synergetic track that pushes and pulls you through the space. Nico Muhly accentuates the otherworldly beauty of ‘The Wilton Diptych’ – its azure blue and gold glowing in dramatic darkness – with a mysterious, processional piece for viola da gamba that circulates around it.
This show, by its own admission, is an experiment for the National. It feels brave (showing just six works rather than 106) and rather smart: it’s not trying to tell you anything, just inviting you to experience a few of its works a bit differently, or for the first time. There are a couple of instances where the sound from one installation leaks into another, but when it works – Philipsz’s achingly fragile violin piece for the Holbein alone is worth the admission price – it makes you wish the National would think about employing a composer-in-residence on a permanent basis. Kanye must have ideas about all those paintings of Jesus, surely?
READ OUR GUIDE TO 'SOUNDSCAPES' WITH EXCLUSIVE CLIPS AND INTERVIEWS HERE