For the next two weeks, the front half of the Frye Art Museum won’t be an art gallery so much as a cavern — a cavern filled with disembodied voices and spooky ambient sounds.
In its dim rooms, elaborate video projections dovetail with this sliding, shifting audio world. The music and visuals are so dreamy that you may well feel your mind and flesh becoming as ethereal as the sights and sounds you’re seeing and hearing.
“Jessika Kenney: Anchor Zero” inaugurates a new exhibition series at the museum, underwritten by the Raynier Institution & Foundation.
In a press statement, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, director of the Frye and curator of Kenney’s exhibition, notes that this new program, the Frye Art Museum | Artist Trust Consortium, aims to support Seattle and Washington artists “over a five-year period through awards, project grants, commission, and exhibitions at the Frye Art Museum.”
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Kenney, a product of Cornish College of the Arts, has a long history in Seattle. She is a frequent vocalist with Cornish-based Gamelan Pacifica and often collaborates with composer-violist Eyvind Kang (her husband). She has a deep background in Persian and Indonesian vocal music, and “Anchor Zero” draws on that. Contributions from painter Faith Coloccia and video designer Daniel Menche, developed in tandem with Kenney’s vocal compositions, make the show an all-immersive experience.
The centerpiece, “Anchor Zero,” consists of a three-channel video and 12-channel audio track. The black-and-white video projections, each lasting under five minutes, are wall-sized and intricately layered, with Menche manipulating videography supplied by Claudia Märzendorfer.
In two of the videos, Kenney slowly paces across the screen. But what she’s moving through is ambiguous in the extreme. It seems simultaneously to be water, sky and solid earth. At other moments, it’s a brush painting done by Coloccia, itself moving left-to-right or right-to-left. Kenney almost disappears, at times, in visuals that are in constant flux.
The third video projection explores different spatial dimensions. In it, we follow Kenney — her back turned to us — as she strolls down a woodland path. At first, she’s so close that her head and shoulders fill the screen. As she grows more distant, she fades almost entirely into tree branches — only to reappear as a dark, unstable aura indeterminately fused with forest shapes.
The visuals would be impressive even without a score. But their steady rhythm interacts with Kenney’s recorded vocals in a curious way. When her voice fades to nothing, the movement of the imagery braces you to expect its return. Soon enough, a single vocal tone or microtonal swoop emerges. Sometimes the vocals pile up into harmonies. Sometimes they’re almost banshee-like cries.
Less melodies than planes of sound, they show how thoroughly and fruitfully Kenney has absorbed non-Western musical traditions.
At the show’s opening last week, Kenney said the score consists of 14 separate 20-minute vocal tracks recorded in the galleries where “Anchor Zero” is installed. Kenney circled through the space as she sang a text by 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi.
She describes the final product as an “anti-choir.” That, in part, is because her vocal technique is antithesis to Western choral practice. It’s also because, however many layers of sound you hear, they’re all coming from one person.
“It’s just me — solo voice,” she says. “I’m offering my presence in these fragmented forms as a doorway into something else.”
The exhibition is accompanied by manuscripts of Kenney’s musical scores and other documentation. But the title piece, with the alternative dimensions of time, space and sound it offers, is what matters here.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org