On this day, the mood of dread washed over the rolling hills, the prim pathways, the polished signs. It filled Jeff Koons’s un-bloomed topiary sculpture, “Split-Rocker,” with a particularly palpable sense of doom — the only sensation strong enough to override the premises’ unabashedly pretentious and cultish energy.
At Glenstone, the cushy surroundings are simply the encasement — often a mask — for heavy, penetrating content that gets at the chaos of our everyday lives and subverts the very ethos of a billionaire-funded art space.
If you’ve been following the news a little too closely, you too may find yourself drawn to the most perceptive, dissembling of the museum’s works: the ones that hang on you like a particularly egregious news alert, buried in an onslaught of other urgent yet watered down notifications.
The first such work beckons from a winding pathway in the woods. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s 2012 audio installation “FOREST (for a thousand years)” imbues the surroundings with a medley of sounds. Choral chants start dainty and small, sailing into haunting crescendos. Birds chirp at high frequencies, like a broken radio, piercing with a sharpness that makes it hard to believe that they are not perched just above your head (particularly on a rainy day). At one point, hysterical laughter breaks out, pinballing from tree to tree. Growing, moving, amplifying, it sounds like the torment delivered by a group of mocking middle-schoolers.
All of this happens while you sit on tree stumps dotting an ever-so-slanted hill on the property. Such an arrangement only adds to the invariably draconian experience. (During the rain, you might also find that everyone else is carrying matching Glenstone umbrellas, like obedient schoolchildren.)
The mood changes swiftly, unexpectedly. First, a battle cry. Then, the searing sound of bullets, bombs, shrapnel. A heavy jet sound expands in your ears. Just try not to look overhead. And when you do — which you will — as you look back down, you’ll see your surroundings anew: the quietude of a suburban-style home with a sprawling porch and sand-colored siding feels startlingly pompous. It’s hard not to think of the news. Who it affects. Who it leaves unscathed.
When you enter the expanded Glenstone campus known as the Pavilions, the darkness of Shirin Neshat’s “Turbulent” closes in around you like a bunker. Here, any lingering thoughts of conflict, of tension, are imbued with human vitality. The 1998 installation, which won Neshat the Golden Lion Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale, consists of two facing video screens. On one, a male singer, dressed in white, performs in front of an audience of similarly dressed men. On the other, a female singer, dressed in black, performs in front of an empty auditorium.
The man goes first. Syllables wrestle out of him with a fervor, a spirit of possession. As he rounds his mouth to fit each word, his body foldsinto itself with every enunciation. His back faces the crowd, but it’s clear he sings for them.
The woman responds. At first, she is only an abstraction: a pyramidal form in a black veil, swaying ever so slightly to his song. Then the camera pivots, revealing an undulating gray sliver of her face. Eyes closed, shaping every utterance with her hands, she sings a wordless song from a world of her own. The man watches, pensively, but she pays no mind.
Born in Iran and now based in New York, Neshat left her homeland as a teenager to study in the United States. She seeks to create works that embody contradictions and dualities: her own multinational background; the masculine and feminine; darkness and light.
As the woman moves through the song, the sounds layer. A new voice, a new tone, a new rhythm, fill each empty seat in the auditorium. The growing constellation of sounds leave a body that trembles with power and fragility, like a delicately plucked guitar string reverberating with the intensity of an avalanche.
Hidden beyond a doorway and down a long hallway in the Pavilions, Robert Gober’s immersive, untitled 1992 installation at first sounds like relief: the ever- present rush of water, as static as white noise. (The semi- autobiographical work is composed of endlessly running sinks, trompe l’oeil forest wallpaper and heaping stacks of newspaper that Gober took it upon himself to edit.)
Gober’s fascination with sinks grew out of early jobs as a carpenter and handyman, and he foregrounds his background as an AIDS activist in themes of cleansing: a dual symbol of the oppressive sterility that marginalized the HIV-positive and a nod to his staunch Catholic upbringing.
Over time, the sound of water becomes relentless and taxing. The sinks feel unbearable. You want to run to all of them and shut them off. It wears on you like the rain outside, like the endless news cycle. You want to scream.
You probably came to Glenstone to see nature and art. Here you are now — looking, instead, at an image of nature, inside of an art installation. You’re like a concertgoer who can’t stop taking videos of the stage. You are trapped inside an image. And Gober, presciently, reminds you. Set into the walls, apertures — barred like the windows of a jail cell — appear to look out onto a clear sky. But the “skies” are just more images.
Is this so different from scrolling through Instagram?
It’s easy to feel like the worst part of us is drawn to the fortresslike Glenstone: the part that craves homogeneity over difference, tidiness where there is none, sterility at its most oppressive. The part that shies away from nuance, entranced by glossy screens.
Each of these works has an audiovisual element. They are powerful because you can’t quite turn away from — or turn off — sound the way you can an unpleasant sight.
But if instead you choose to lean in and listen, somewhere inside the noise of the art, you might just find the digital maelstrom assuaged.
You might even find it silenced.
Glenstone, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac. glenstone.org.
Dates: On indefinite view.