This Is a Voice
Time Out says
Walk through the soundproofed corridor that opens the Wellcome Collection’s latest show and you hear a surprising sound: birdsong. What place does this twittering have in an exhibition about the human voice? It’s astonishing to enter Marcus Coates’s installation ‘Dawn Chorus’ and see footage of people singing like wrens and robins. Coates recorded birds individually, then slowed their songs down to be imitated by singers. He filmed the humans in their natural habitat – in bed, on the couch, in the bath – then sped his footage up until their voices were indistinguishable from the birds they mimicked. The films play on a forest of pole-mounted screens.
Like most Wellcome Collection shows, ‘This Is a Voice’ mixes art and science. It’s full of interesting things to hear. In Katarina Zdjelar’s video ‘The Perfect Sound’ an immigrant chants inarticulate syllables in an effort to remove his accent. An iPad plays old footage of deaf and blind Helen Keller, one hand on her teacher’s face, learning to speak through sensation.
Understandably enough, curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz wants the audience to experience the show through their ears, rather than squinting at wall labels. The information available is succinct – so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to understand the significance of particular objects. We learn that a contraption of tubing and velvet is a ‘phantom larynx’, used in the nineteenth century as a medical teaching aid, but have little precise information on how it worked.
Some exhibits feel only vaguely linked to the theme. A clip from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, for instance, feels like a pat way of demonstrating the power of the disembodied voice. Cut through the white noise, though, and the show is full of revelations. In one mesmerising film, a deaf child learns to imbue her sign language with nuances that come naturally when we speak aloud. It’s a potent demonstration of what the voice can say beyond words.