Alex Jen Reviews Sara Ludy's 'Climates'

Alex Jen

Alex Jen

There’s a moment of realization, or recognition, with Sara Ludy’s Climates that is hard to come by the same way twice.

It’s when the Fern Room is laced with cell phone sounds, running water, and chattering voices; when Climates’ whispers fade in and out of focus. When there’s a confusing collapse of digital and organic, and the work and its environment -- until you walk into the space the piece has carved out of the surrounding din. Then, you hear Climates, so clear and so sharp that you wonder why it was unnoticeable just a few moments prior (what else have you been missing?). It’s a patient, underlying hum that spills in, with hollow skeins of pitch that scurry atop it.

Ludy created Climates after three days of having a fever of nearly 104 degrees, when she decided to meditate and tune into her heightened tinnitus in hopes of having it subside. For her, the effect was introspective and healing, and what she wanted to recreate in Climates.

Technically, Climates is a multi-channel sound installation played on loop; however, it never feels that rigid -- there do not seem to be any starts, stops or repeats. The work is fluid, seamlessly continuing as you walk the paths of the Fern Room. And yet “immersive” is too simple a description for it, it’s not just surround sound. Climates reverberates in different pockets of the Fern Room; the sound rising and falling at varying intensities, sometimes behind you, or to your right or left. Walking in, you hear a steady, fuzzy hiss that persists suspensefully but never culminates, while just out of reach ahead rings what seem to be endless sets of digitally distorted and crumbling chimes. By staggering layers of varyingly processed natural and mechanical noises heard in Chicago, Ludy makes sound physical, such that your ears want to grasp at the warbling and receding apparition that is Climates.

Climates creeps and spreads like the moss that permeates the Conservatory; while its composition can be called “synthetic,” its pulsing rhythm and installation in the Fern Room suggest otherwise. None of the ferns present would grow naturally in a Chicago climate; the Fern Room is a contained environment, a carefully tended and maintained display that allows ferns, some over 200 years old, to grow slowly in a simulated environment. It’s fitting, then, that Climates billows in the space and its changes continue on perhaps too subtle to notice. On one level, it narrows the gap between human and artificial, eerily suggesting how comfortable we’ve become with a digital soundscape, and how man might be making the man-made to gradually out make the man. On another, Climates seems to make you acutely aware of time passing -- how old is this particular fern? How long have you been here? And then you notice extraneous sounds -- different soles scraping the floor and making their way through the Fern Room, different visitors speaking at different speeds in different languages, the same guide’s introduction and explanation of the “Tree Ferns,” scripted to perfection.

All throughout the Conservatory, little signs with arrows point at and explain the different plant species. Visitors strain to read them -- they’re here to look at, and learn about the many flowers, ferns and palms from around the world. There’s also a sign explaining Climates at the entrance to the Fern Room, but hardly anyone reads it, because there’s nothing to see, and we’re not an aural culture.

It’s better that way, so that the first stumble across and wash over of Climates can ultimately subsume you. Perhaps it was when Ludy’s other senses were partially impaired with fever that her hearing could be so focused. Climates reconfigures your semiotic understandings of the world around you, to train you to associate sound with image, and slowly consider its shape, texture, movement and sentiments.

-Alex Jen


Alex Jen is an independent curator and critic based in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He has written for Hyperallergic, Hiram Butler Gallery and ArtDesk, and is currently working on a piece considering space and texture in Robert Irwin's work for Domus. Past projects include an exhibition of sound and visual art by Brian Trelegan at Williams College, where Jen is also a student.