Tuesday, 21 April 2015



You have climbed the broad sweeping Millbank steps, leaving the River Thames behind you, crossed the portico and entrance restored a couple of years ago 
to the grandeur intended by the gallery's original architect, Sidney R J Smith. You are rewarded with a view of this centre piece, a dizzy staircase spiralling down to the lower level, with its new cafe and restaurant and archive galleries. The Art Deco scallop pattern recalls the Tate's original marble mosaic floor and as you journey down it may feel like a glamorous sweep into the 1930s.

But you are distracted. What can you hear? Birdsong? You know it is ridiculous but you can't help looking up beyond the elegant spaces and galleries of the upper floors, including the Members' Room/Cafe, until you come to a glass dome and last of all the sky. Unsurprisingly not a single bird is in sight.

Something Going on Above My Head (1995-9) brings together the sounds of 2,000 birds, creating what the artist calls an acoustic sculpture. Oswaldo Macia spent five years collecting bird calls from international ornithological archives and audio libraries, reworking them into a symphony. He scored them according to the birds’ pitches. Carefully positioned speakers fill the space above with a mesmerising chorus. It sounds like true birdsong, which of course it is. 
But there are paradoxes. 'Titles are not descriptive; rather they are material and tactile elements of the composition' says the artist.The title of this work describes  the physical location of the installation, above our heads. But there is another meaning. How often do we say "it's above my head" or "it just goes over my head" when we are talking about something we do not understand? These calls are sounds, not language. Birdsong is romantic, beautiful and pleasing, pure liquid joy. But some may well be a call of distress or or a ploy to fool a predator. The distinction between noise, however pleasant, and sound is dependent on knowledge, which we do not have.

 The inspiration for the work was a newspaper article that referred in passing to Russian submarines dumping nuclear residues in the Baltic Sea. MaciĆ” was alarmed that such news could be easily missed among all the other information in the paper.

The works create scenarios where perception tests the limit of knowledge.
The work must be a ‘small deep lake and never a shallow ocean’.
Oswaldo MaciĆ” 2013

The leaflet seen below is for visitors to take away. The  diagram shows an orchestra in which the instruments have been replaced by the names of birds in Latin.

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