The melody haunts my memory. Jacqueline Donachie's soundworks

Jan Winkelmann

The first time I saw a work by Jacqueline Donachie it haunted me for the rest of the day. I had gone into a London gallery one rainy day in January. One of the assorted works by young British artists caught my eye. It consisted of two xeroxed posters measuring roughly 180 by 90 centimetres each. The left-hand one showed an almost lifesize photo of a woman of about twenty with a casual hairdo, an unobtrusively fashionable seventies outfit, her arms akimbo, her pose askew and her eyes cast down in contemplation or shyness. The pose chiefly, but also the lack of a background, conveyed the impression of a fashion photo like those often gracing the pages of glossy magazines. The poster on the right bore a text recounting an episode, in a vein both ironical and humorous, from the life of the artist depicted on the left. My eye was magically drawn to one sentence: "... Then the relationship ended, but you know, single can be good – it just takes some time to re-adjust and get used to walking home on your own when the pubs shut." Walking home on your own when the pubs shut. The phrase echoed in my mind. Everyone knows what it feels like to walk the boulevard of broken dreams, firmly convinced that you're the loneliest person on earth at that moment. Long-forgotten memories suddenly resurfaced. I spent the rest of the day in reverie, occasionally coming back to reality with a jolt.

I had a similar experience when I read a description of Donachie's sound installation Part Edit (1994). A song was mentioned which I had heard incessantly when holidaying in England as an exchange student. Again, age-old memories were dredged up, so old that they are rarely recalled by a mind filled with workaday worries, but intensely pleasurable for all that.

The two experiences are good examples for the success of Donachie's strategy of addressing the beholder directly with her works and of prompting an unconscious mental reaction of which we are not usually aware until it has taken place. Individual memory is stimulated and activated by a sensory impression which takes instant effect. To this end Donachie resorts to acoustic triggers which, like smells, have the most direct effect on the human body. By direct I mean in this context – and here I venture into what for me is an alien domain, the psychology of perception – that no intellectual processing takes place between the external stimulus and its physiological effect. This is compounded by the physiological fact that the organs of acoustic and olfactory perception cannot be switched off automatically. You can shut out visual impressions by closing your eyes, but the ears and nose stay open. You can look away, but you can't hear away. In that sense Donachie's soundworks, especially when heard in the usually contemplative atmosphere of an exhibition space, are extremely hostile, a hostility that might even qualify as aggressive, were it not for the fact that it is coupled with an extraordinarily suggestive force.

The suggestion is primarily evoked by pop songs. Hardly anything affects an individual's vital consciousness, and to a greater or lesser extent that of his entire generation, so sweepingly and invasively as pop music. Pop music is everywhere: at home, in the car, in cafés, bars and clubs. We listen to it by choice from cd's or tapes, or casually and at random on the radio or television. There is nothing comparable that is collectively consumed on such a scale across national and cultural borders and in all walks of life. And although hits come and go faster than any other fad, "pop music is a kind of memory of a time"(1). The opposite number of collective memory, a generation-dependent phenomenon, is personal memory. The resulting dialectical tension is what Donachie's work is all about. Generally speaking, we associate with particular songs which are representative of every other hit of our time, and hence interchangeable to a certain extent, a particular vital consciousness which, as I just said, tends to be stimulated by music in the first place. On the other hand, personal memories are frequently linked with the same song. It is during our turbulent youth, which compared with other periods in our lives is much more strongly influenced by music, that certain experiences are lastingly and often powerfully linked with emotions. Apart from that, however, even when our musical taste changes as we come to adulthood, there is no denying the fact that music accompanies us throughout our lives, or, as Donachie so aptly puts it: "Music is a soundtrack to your life." In short, music arouses and influences moods, manipulates feelings and "puts images in people's heads". In that sense Donachie employs it as her material and places the beholder, or rather the listener, at the centre of her works.

These may certainly assume different guises. In the aforementioned installation Part Edit there were innumerable loudspeakers of various sizes, emanating noises, pop music, fragments of speech and so forth, on the walls of the exhibition space. To a visitor standing in the middle of the room these sounds blended into undefinable background noise. Only by approaching one of the speakers was it possible to pick out a particular sound from the acoustic mix. A tour of the loudspeakers aroused a wide variety of associations, sending the visitor off on a journey through his world of memories and imagination. "The initial surprise of the work is that what seems almost totally devoid of visual material quickly becomes a complex scenario full of images and memories..."(2)

The artist never knew how the individual observer was influenced and affected by this work, but in Thirteen Interviews (1995) which she made for the exhibition Make Believe (3) she envisaged greater control. "I like the idea of controlling people, to manipulate people's feelings." Donachie invited the thirteen curators of the exhibition to dinner. Throughout the evening, which was recorded on tape, a selection of music chosen by the artist played in the background. The tape of the evening clearly showed whether and how the general mood changed with the different numbers. In that sense the work is a kind of 'psychological experiment', similar in its basic structure to Part Edit, but with the fundamental difference that the 'test subjects, the course and the result of the experiment' were observed and supervised by the artist. Running the tape in the installation, however, meant that the artist was unable to control the manipulative and individual effect on visitors to the exhibition.

In her installation for shift Donachie has modified and expanded her method by addressing the visitor directly. On entering De Appel the visitors are met by a voice from upper floors, like Rapunzel's from her tower, luring them aloft. On their way through the rooms they are constantly confronted with walls of loudspeakers from which music, but more often voices, can be heard, asking questions like "why don't you remember?". Open questions which disconcert the visitors, who do not know the reason behind them, and therefore fail to understand them. One might hope that the enigma will be solved in another part of the exhibition. But there is no solution, the enigma remains an enigma, the visitors are left to their own devices and once again, Jacqueline Donachie's strategy is 'successful'.

(1) All Donachie's remarks are quoted from an interview with the author on March 13, 1995.
(2) Douglas Gordon, 'Part Edit' in Frieze 18 (Sept./Oct. 1994), 63.
(3) February 7.-26., 1995, Royal College of Art, London

(Translation: Ruth Koenig)

published in: Shift, cat. De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam 1995

© 1995 Jan Winkelmann

German version