Julianne Swartz is late. As Indianapolis Museum of Art donors, staff and a handful of press meander in the entrance to the gallery displaying her exhibit How Deep Is Your, they eye a blue cone connected to a winding blue pipe that climbs from the lower floors like a PVC vine. Without warning a keening wail -- like an orchestra that's playing train brakes for instruments -- echoes out from deeper in the gallery. For a moment the guests and staff are united in their stunned silence. Despite a dozen voices muttering "what was that," no one seems to know where the sound came from or what it was. Then a woman with black hair that hangs in loose curls around a smiling face speaks up.
"Julianne will be here shortly," says the woman, who introduces herself as the curator Rachel Arauz. "I want to give you a really brief introduction to the show."
Arauz guides the crowd through the first room of the gallery, explaining the layered meanings and ephemerality that drew her to Schwartz's work. There are a series of photographs in which Schwartz used a handheld mirror or a drop of water to refract light and transform the image. There is a thin metal strip to one side that hovers impossibly from the wall, and a plate of frosted glass that displays sparkling lights only when viewed from the proper angle. To even enter the room, you have to pass that blue cone. If you put your head into it, you'll hear the quavering voices of John Lennon and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees singing over one another. Lennon sings "Love", Gibb "How Deep Is Your Love."
"There's one tiny speaker downstairs," Arauz explains. "But you'll find that even after the pipe winds up three floors, you can still make out what they are singing."
Stepping into How Deep Is Your feels less like visiting a gallery and more like a trip into the fringes of a Guillermo del Toro film. Physics seems to be gently unravelling, as magnetic rainbows defy gravity in perfect balance. Ghostly voices laugh from speakers hung like captured flies in a web of colorful wires. In Obstacle, a thin wire jutting from a concrete block struggles to pull a sack of air over a small mountain in an endlessly repeated orbit. All of the pieces are extremely fragile, their stability the product of perfectly balanced tension. The exhibit is a tightly choreographed dance of gravity and magnetism, sound and light.
Then of course, there is Open.
At the center of the first room is a simple box of wood. It's beautifully stained, but lacks the visual oddity that draws viewers to the other works on display. But should a guest grip the obvious groove on the lip of the lid and lift, they will find that it is ... empty. Then they will hear something, a whisper. "I love you," the box says. Then another voice, deeper, stronger repeats it. "I love you." Soon a wave of voices comes gushing out of the box, growing in volume, roaring its love. The cacophony of affection will grow until the listener slams the lid shut.
The keening wail pierced the gallery several more times during the tour, each time leaving the crowd in stunned silence. Finally Swartz and Arauz revealed the source: a curved membrane of paper and wire that twisted gently in the currents of air supplied by the crowd titled Composition for a Thin Membrane. Embedded within were a handful of what turned out to be speakers.
"The membrane vibrates when the speakers play," says Swartz after her belated arrival. There is no single sound the speakers play, but once more several tracks are layered. "They are tactile sounds. For example, there's that of a finger running along the rim of a glass. It's the sound of touch."
There is a great sense of wonder but also a slight sense of unease in Swartz's work, an aesthetic that has spread throughout the museum. Entering the bathroom, guests will be greeted by Affirmation. There is no obvious artwork in the room, but then a voice will speak from the sink and tell the unexpectingvistor that it's "there for you. Really, truly there for you." The elevator in the main lobby now features a plush yellow rug, grimy yellow lighting, and muzak that may have been sung by Siri.
"I think I'm a collagist," says Swartz. "And since I've been working with sound it makes sense to layer sounds and create juxtaposition. I feel a lot of the work is about fragility -- emotional fragility or physical fragility. The fragility brings out more empathy, because you empathize with the object."
That empathy makes How Deep Is You're an incredible experience, one that strips you of your preconceptions and leaves you feeling as fragile and exposed as Swartz's art.
How Deep Is Your runs from March 14 through June 15 in the McCormack Forefront Galleries (and elsewhere throughout the museum). For more information check the IMA's website.