by Loh Bi Ying
When the word ‘metronome’ is mentioned, we often would not think about something beautiful, let alone an art work. Yet Martin Creed has effortlessly blended metronomes with music and art. Setting this art work in a particularly interesting environment, he makes something simple stand out amongst the other forms of art work pertaining to music or some element of music in the space.
The uniqueness of the piece is accentuated by that fact that it creates a rustic sound produced by knobs and gears which makes it much more organic compared to an artificially produced sound through electric boards, wires and metals. At the other end of the exhibition space, is an artwork by Rubén Ramos Balsa – in another discrete area – which shows an orchestra of street musicians from different places playing their instruments on small MP3 players. And it really seemed quite empty. While an orchestra is supposed to resonate throughout the space, the notion of the MP3 players with videos doesn’t do justice to the majestic sound that an orchestra produces.
However, the simple sounds of the metronome actually echo throughout the space, and have a unique identity. The presence of the background ‘music’ fused with the surroundings of the Old Kallang Airport, so that one would not notice its existence, is what attracted me to this piece. It accentuates the surrounding sounds like the wind and leaves rustling so that I mistook it’s sound as being part of the natural environment.
It was only when I ventured further into that space and looked below eye level, that I noticed the metronomes, ticking in their own world, swaying in their own space, oblivious to their surroundings, ticking like a clock. As a group of metronomes, as a lone metronome – in different speeds but coming together. It may seem that the different speeds of the metronomes will be somewhat un-unified and initially come across to most visitors as a mass of sounds. Yet, the continuous pace of the ticking soon “dissolves” into a piece of sound that has its own identity – like a rhythm – with the intersection of the beats of a 130BPM metronome with a 50BPM one.
This intersection intrigues me: Sensitive to sounds and rhythm, I could hear the change in rhythm when some of the metronomes stopped ticking; the metal bar suspended in mid air seemed like someone had pressed a pause button. It happened often and especially to the ones with 200 BPM – ticking the fastest – and when the ‘bunch’ of the faster ones stop, it seems that the time around me slowed down. The only metronomes left ticking are the slower ones – each of their metal bars swaying from left to right slowly, tracing a slow semicircle arc. Surprisingly, the sound ‘melts’ in the atmosphere where it becomes much quieter – the slow tick-tock resonates in the atmosphere like a sharp sound as the metal bar ‘cuts’ through the air.
The thing about metronomes is that they need to be wound up often and the faster ones probably need to be would up every two hours. The slower ones can last as long as 5 hours. That is why most of the time the only tick-tock sounds left are the slow ones. The artwork requires constant winding and this reminded me of grandfather clocks or clockwork toys: time comes to a standstill when the clock stops. Toys stop moving and they seem to be frozen and stuck in a moment of time. The winding up of the metronomes also reminded me of the process of starting over – accentuated with the action of it being picked up, wound and then put back down again where it ‘unfreezes’ and carries on like nothing happened. It’s also like taking something away from the environment, and giving it a new life. When it is put back down, the whole cycle starts again — but there is something different. The rhythm differs from before. The piece of sound will no longer be the same as what was heard previously.
There is something to look forward to every time the metronome is rewound. It is unpredictable, unexpected and contains an element of surprise that keeps me standing there, staring at the metronomes; expecting one to be suddenly brought to a halt by the mechanism so I can hear another piece of the ‘composition’. During that moment, I felt compelled to take the metronomes up and reset all of them, just to see what kind of ‘music’ it will produce. Or perhaps, to alter the speed of them. Yet, I was struck with the idea to not disturb the ‘music’ that was created by accident.
Martin Creed probably created this artwork — or I should call it music – because of his past. As a musician, metronomes signify beats and constant pacing in life and it could mean something important to him as a lot of his artworks refer to his past experiences.
Perhaps the metronomes and their beats help us keep track of happenings in our life – like a conductor in a symphony, like a marker that reminds us of certain things that should happen at certain times. Or certain things that should not happen. It serves as a reminder of not losing track of time and oneself – but to be aware of our time, not to be stuck in a moment of time like clockwork, but to keep on moving – similar to the metronomes when they really try to ‘propel’ themselves when they are stuck – waiting for someone to rewind the mechanism to make them start. Perhaps, we just need a push by someone, a motivation to make sure we stay on the right track.
Then again, nobody knows. The point is not about really understanding the artwork, but about feeling it. And that is what Martin’s Creed and his 39 metronomes really gave me. There is something more about it than just an audio-visual artwork. It might sound like exaggeration, but Martin Creed breathes life into the metronomes.