A Diorama from the Age of Northern Song [1]

To open a piece of writing by referring to the latest advances in virtual reality or augmented reality is to underscore the imminent obsolescence of the very medium in use. However, from Zeuxis to Avatar, people have been trying to perfect the illusion of reality through methods not dissimilar to recent advances in technology. Thanks to the invention of stereo-optics, which exploited the properties of binocular vision early on, 3D representation is as old as photography, yet the sources of virtual reality generated by computers go back even further, to the dioramas that flourished during the 19th century. These popular attractions established a central point of view on a panoramic painting of a spectacular scene. They were clearly one of the forerunners of cinema, which, since its origin, dreamed of uniting sound and image-in short, of concentrating as much and as many sensations as possible at a single point.

Though Cécile Beau’s work is largely based in sound, it nonetheless retains certain visual qualities that recall the diorama. Like the spectator of those earlier theaters of painting, anyone who wants to experience Biale must cross a darkened corridor before coming out into a vividly lit space. Four panoramic photographs of winter landscapes are hung in the corners of the modernist white cube. At first glance, the arrangement looks scopic because the positioning of the elements lets the glance glide freely, without encountering any obstacles: the room’s verticals dissolve into curves, and the images are so pale that it’s hard to distinguish their edges from the white walls, ceiling, and floor. However, as in a blizzard, in which the landscape is revealed in intermittent fragments to the traveler crossing it, details begin to appear gradually as the viewer’s eyes adapt to the intense luminosity. Images float up as though from the bottom of a developing bath, while the sound emanating from the photographs alters the viewer’s perception of their surface details.

Though a diorama works by immersing the spectator, it is nonetheless rigorously organized around a perspective determined by a single point of view, which means that the transition from the illusionistic space of the painting to the real space of the spectator is achieved through real objects, at times elongated through painted perspective. Akmuo literally shows a rectangular section of a dried-up riverbed, but it also evokes hybrid, dioramic objects. Sound textures suggesting the underground passage of water emanate from visual pieces that themselves plunge beneath the acoustic perspective’s form. In this way, the physical presence of objects is deployed across an auditory plane.

The principle of point of view also plays a role in the piece entitled (c=1/√ρχ), which at first looks like a science-fiction city in a nocturnal landscape. Luminous objects-the glass instruments of a chemistry lab fitted together to create a sound-distillery-are submerged in darkness. At the entrance to the installation, a loud-speaker diffuses various sounds coming from the outside. Traveling at a speed of 340,29 meters per second, they are immediately captured by a microphone and amplified. The installation makes a poetic association between the transparency of glass and the invisibility of sound in order to create an audible architecture. As is often the case in Beau’s work, sound intensifies sight as it crosses the surface of the objects she creates. However, in this work, the transparency of the material makes the viewer aware of a displacement within. The horn, the still, and the coil act as echo chambers producing unique distortions of the sounds that cross them and suggesting the forms’ interiors by the changes they produce in sound.

The principle of analogy is at the heart of Vallen: a black, slightly concave quadrilateral that harbors a pool of water at its center. The water’s surface is lightly agitated by concentric waves created by a loud-speaker beneath the liquid that emits the sound of a drop of water. Before digital technology, recording used analogical systems based on principles of equivalence: the stronger the sound, the deeper the furrow a stylus would inscribe on the surface of a membrane, such as the tin of the first Edison rolls. Vallen transcribes a sound into a form, as what appears on the liquid surface is the evidence of an invisible drop, and its contours are intimately linked to the sound that produced it.

Like the painters of the dioramas, who engaged in endless research to make their scenes more accurate and more striking, Cécile Beau makes the link between documentation and a certain kind of spectacle. She collects her sounds in a documentary phase that requires visiting various locations and making specific choices about recording devices and equipment[2]. But unlike the installations of an artist such as Robert Smithson, Cécile Beau’s don’t look back to make a link with any space beyond that of the exhibition. Beau meticulously works over the recordings, following certain expressive principles, in order to reconstruct a deconstructed event. Like the Chinese paintings of the 10th and 11th centuries that tried to create a complete universe parallel to the exterior world, Cécile Beau’s pieces are constituted of microcosms and macrocosms, the former holding themselves at a distance, and the latter enveloping the spectator. If this work had to be summed up in a single image, a paradoxical image-and such a distillation would take a bit time-it would be that of a diorama whose entire circular surface was covered by one of Fan Kuan’s lyrical landscapes[3].

Aurélien Mole, translated by Cole Swensen


[1]The Northern Song Dynasty flourished in China from 960 to 1126.

[2]The soundscape for Fields is an arrangement of sounds generated by eolians, electrical counters or hydraulic turbines captured by a microphone and a piedzo (a contact microphone).

[3]Fan Kuan, born around the middle of the 10th century, was still alive around 1025. A painter, he viewed landscape as spiritual experience as much as visual creation.