[exhibition] chris watson, “whispering in the leaves” @ kew gardens

August 8, 2010

Exhibition dates: May 29-September 5, 2010

Palm House at Kew Gardens

Chris Watson has at least two of my dream jobs. As sound recordist for countless BBC Natural History Unit productions he gets to travel to the wildest and most beautiful places the world, and hang out with Sir David Attenborough. As a sound artist (he was a founding member of Cabaret Voltiare) he crafts his recordings into standalone creative works, transporting the listener to distant, unfamiliar environments.

Whispering In The Leaves is his latest installation, comprising two pieces – Dawn and Dusk – assembled from his extensive archive of Central and South American rainforest recordings. Each piece lasts between 15 and 20 minutes – around the same time it takes darkness to lift or to fall in that habitat.

Flowers in the Palm House at Kew Gardens

The recordings are played from 80 speakers, arranged around the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, creating an enveloping sonic environment among the exotic plants. Nonetheless, it took me a while to tune out of the children and chatter. Full immersion (in Dusk) began only once the thunder started.

The layering of sound upon sound – crickets, followed by thunder, then birds, frogs, rainfall, monkeys and more – draws you gradually into the world Watson reconstructs using only his microphone (OK, and some post-production software no doubt). The rumbles, hisses, whistles, chirps, croaks, clicks and pulses take on a (timbrally) harmonious quality.

And as the crickets fade, and the (Homo sapiens) children and chatter return all too forcefully, you immediately become aware of what disappears every time a space – even one as beautiful as Kew – is given over to human concerns.

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