Off the Mark in the Off-Season

MoCA's latest exhibition from its permanent collection doesn't live up to the museum's high standards

I've no idea where two of the most unusual works here fit into the scheme of things as set out in that introduction to the show. They're both by the German artist Rolf Julius, and both are minimalist installations using sound as a key element. Four White Stones (1987) consists of four small blocks of marble, irregularly spaced in a corner of the museum. Atop each sits a tiny round audio speaker, and a tangle of thin wires connects the speakers to a portable cassette player tucked into the corner.

Visually, it's a striking-enough composition, but the soft, static-like sounds emanating from the speakers are what make the piece so intriguing. Julius, who's clearly influenced by composer John Cage, calls it "small music" -- ordinary random sounds collected and played continuously at low volumes (Cage called them "small sounds").

The other Julius piece is more of the same, only slightly more ambitious. For Seben Wiesse Musiknesser (Seven Music Nests) (1988), seven speakers larger than those in Four White Stones have been strung high on the walls in another corner of the museum, three on one wall, joined by thin wire that snakes around the corner to connect to the other four. The sounds here are even subtler and more varied: barely audible hums, buzzes, hisses, crackles.

If you follow the wall to the end, you'll find a stack of receivers and cassette players with flashing meters, generating the bizarre mixture of sounds that at first seems like something created by aliens. But listen closely, and you can detect a birdlike quality to these electronic stutterings -- I kept thinking of the Paul Klee painting The Twittering Machine, with its eerie mechanical birds.

For me, these two Julius installations, along with Terminal Tunnel and a few other works, made up for the shortcomings of "Primal Screams and Songs." If you're a MoCA regular, however, you also may agree that now is the time to take some of this art out of rotation awhile to showcase other pieces from the permanent collection.

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