Adrian Göllner: Norwegian Wood @ PMG

The sound of silent objects: Adrian Göllner builds contraptions, then makes art | Ottawa Citizen

What: Norwegian Wood, new works by Adrian Göllner

When & Where: to May 11 at Patrick Mikhail Gallery, 2401 Bank St., vernissage 5 to 9 p.m., Friday, April 5.

Across the Universe

Across the Universe


Peter Simpson
Heard melodies are sweet,” wrote John Keats in his poem Ode to a Grecian Urn in 1819, “but those unheard are sweeter.”

Then what to make of melodies unheard, but seen?

What if somebody built a device that transmits music — such as the sad songs of John Lennon — to a pen that traces an image of that music onto paper? What if the person built a device to capture a voice reading Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urnand etch it into the side of a Grecian urn?

Adrian Göllner, who is 90 per cent artist and 10 per cent mad scientist, has an upstairs studio in his Chinatown home where  he builds makeshift devices of singular purpose. Two years ago, he took the moving bits out of antique alarm clocks and set them on sheets of paper, with pen attached, to jiggle unguided across the page until the remaining energy wound into the clocks by their owners years ago ran out. The tracings were, in effect, a real manifestation of energy expended by people who had died long ago.

Göllner’s current project, brought together under the name Norwegian Wood and now open at Patrick Mikhail Gallery, began when his young son came home from daycare singing Beatles’ songs. Göllner has a turntable in his studio, so he got out his old Beatles’ albums on vinyl, and became particularly interested in songs in which John Lennon was “really being hard on himself.

"I thought, maybe within these grooves, within this minute physical evidence of those recordings, there might well be the shape of Lennon’s sadness,” Göllner says during an interview in his studio.

He built a contraption that attaches to a speaker and holds a pen over a sheet of paper that spins at the speed of a long-playing record, and then he “transcribed” songs including Norwegian WoodCome TogetherI’m a Loser and Help!

The results look vaguely like a pressing of the grooves on a vinyl record, but they vary significantly. In the drawing forCome Together the grooves are densely packed into a dark circle, while the grooves in the drawing for Help! are more sparsely spaced. Each song’s drawing is distinct.

What it means is up to the listener/viewer. “I’m fully aware that this is highly speculative, and it’s even divination,” Göllner says, yet there’s no doubt the drawings are a manifestation of something of the performer, and are therefore a place for contemplation by the viewer.

All of this got Göllner thinking about “automatic drawing machines,” and that led him to build a “harmonograph.” Using instructions mined from the internet, Göllner built two surfaces on pendulums that swing independently of each other. On one surface he affixed a pen, and it hangs over a paper attached to the other surface. The direction and speed of movement of each is determined by how and where Göllner pushes each surface into motion, and the possibilities seem to be infinite. The only certainty is that a geometric design will result, its shape and pattern revealed as pen and paper continue their slow, graceful dance. At one point I lightly tap one of two surfaces into motion, and 15 minutes later it’s still swinging steadily. “The single choice you make,” Göllner says, “is, when do you lift the pen?”

Harmonographs were a big hit in Victorian parlours, though adults today would more likely see them as an automated version of Spirograph, the drawing toythat emerged in the 1960s and made every kid a Buckminster Fuller. During my studio visit Göllner set his harmonograph into motion, and I almost forgot about our interview as I was mesmerized by the steady creation of a dense, geometric drawing.

Eventually I shook myself out of the reverie and turned to the third part of Göllner’s exhibition, the pottery. He built another contraption — really, the word was coined for Göllner’s machines — and this one resembles the horn of Edison’s original music player, the phonograph.

On the end of the cone-shaped horn is the “needle,” which usually would read grooves on a cylinder or disc and turn the vibrations into sound via the horn.  Göllner has reversed the process. He plays sound into the horn, and the vibrating needle etches the groove into the side of a piece of pottery that turns on a wheel. (Göllner gets the pottery, unfired and still soft, from Carolyn Pynn-Trudeau.)

On the bottom of each piece is carved an explanation: a water jug is etched with the sound of running water, another has a dog barking, or a man coughing. And on a Grecian urn is the sound of a man reading Keats’ classic poem.

They’re all familiar sounds, Göllner notes, and putting them onto pottery gives them “another meaning, or essence.”

I ask him, is it possible to recapture that essence, to “play” the pottery and hear the sounds again? Perhaps someday, he says. “It’s for the archeologists in the future.”

Postscript: Göllner’s most widely seen works are his large-scale installations around the world, from the multi-colored glass wall at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans to his massive compass in the Canadian embassy in Berlin. He’s working on a large installation for the new Canadian embassy in Moscow, but first he has another work going up closer to home.

On April 20 he’ll install a large piece, Swift, on the wall of the Domicile condominiums at 131 Holland.

“It is a line drawing of the flight path of a chimney swift as it darts about in the evening sky eating insects,” he says. “The chimney swift was chosen because of its mutually beneficial relationship with humans: the birds like to nest in the chimneys we build and they eat mosquitoes and black flies in our neighbourhoods.”

It’s harmony, like a John Lennon song, but perhaps not so sad.