Silence is Golden: Artists examine quiet in the Renaissance Society’s latest exhibition

“Several Silences” on display at the Renaissance Society; Sam Bowman

“Several Silences” on display at the Renaissance Society; Sam Bowman

One hundred clear plastic balls with curled slips of blank paper embedded in them litter the floor of the Renaissance Society’s gallery. Five and seven-eighths inches in diameter, they’re big enough to maneuver around, and light enough for a toddler to pick up. As the crowd at the opening tiptoes around them like uncomfortable subjects in conversation, a bank of mute TVs loop a video of mute public figures waiting for interviews to begin and descendents of John Cage’s “4’33”” spin on turntables. Downstairs a few minutes later a German curator asks, “Can you calculate the void?” The silence is pregnant, but he answers his own question. “Not by comparing silence to nothing. There are no nothingnesses,” he says, referencing Jean-François Lyotard, “but there are some silences.”

A conceptually broad show whose depth doesn’t quite match its breadth, “Several Silences” aims to explore silence, whether as a subjective sense of having nothing to say, arid formalism, a negational strategy, or as the aforementioned Siemens Arts Program curator Thomas Trummer phrases it, “the great other in the history of Western thought.” It’s a sweeping objective, and the anodyne results are a testament to the number of pitfalls avoided in its curation. As Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker notes, silence “lends itself to really bad poetic interpretations.”

Ryan Gardner’s 2008 piece “A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor” maintains the cloying trend of titling works for self-aware bombast to dispel any alienating earnestness. Illuminating silence as a moral and physical lacuna, his hundred limpid balls are the centerpiece of the show. Harry Shearer’s “The Silent Echo Chamber,” the aforementioned bank of mute TVs, offers some blandly reputation-confirming character studies of the last election’s major figures. Brow furrowed, Obama looks poised and thoughtful while McCain seems to giggle in a private world. Hillary Clinton is a stoic smiler, and Larry King is ready to pounce. Lewis Baltz’s 1989 photograph “Anechoic Chamber, France Télécom Laboratories” is calmly charnel. Jagged rows of sound-absorbing elements recall terracotta soldiers fixed in eternal formation. In contrast, Troy Brauntuch’s photo-inspired conté crayon drawings keep secrets. His contribution, “Untitled (Shirts numbers 1,2 and 3)” is a smoky depiction of a shelf full of men’s shirts at upscale discount clothier Century 21. A memento mori several times over, it’s based on a photograph taken in mid-September, 2001. Alas, it partakes in this decade’s other titling trend, numbered curtness. The German collective Geissler and Sann’s “personal kill #13” presents a mud-floored brick and concrete corridor from an American urban warfare training site, which complements the antiseptic stillness of Baltz’s anechoic chamber from across the room with lively bootprints, echoing Brueghel the same way a laser parallels a mirror in the sun.

The real pitfall “Several Silences” avoids is “4’33”,” even though the exhibit stumbles a little. After 40 years, John Cage’s point that only the grave is truly silent has basically permeated the art historical canon and seeped a few inches further. Thankfully, the Ren doesn’t beat that dead horse, but both “tributes” to the work are what kids on the 55 bus call “triflin’ shit.” Carl Michael von Hausswolff scores tactical points with his interpretation, an unplayable record with an 81” groove, but it’s a quip for a cocktail party. In that sense it became the high-ceilinged, white-walled gallery of white wine sippers, but hardly earned its corner position. Manon de Bouere’s soporific two-shot film of a pianist twice performing the original is a worthy commentary on the ritualization of the avant-garde with as much relevance as your uncle telling you that home taping is killing music. As I watch two young men in sharp trousers and shirts buttoned up all the way walk out the door past the crowd of old men in jeans-and-blazers, I realize that a site-specific form of negational silence is at work.
Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave., room 418. Through June 7. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. (773)702-8670.