Commissioned specifically for Dia:Beacon, Max Neuhaus’s Time Piece Beacon (2005) creates a zone of sound around the perimeter and in the galleries of the museum. As each hour approaches, a low tone gradually emerges, almost imper- ceptibly increasing in volume; the hour is signaled when the sound abruptly ends, creating what seems a silence in the ambient sonic environment. This is what the artist called a “sound signal in reverse,” a subtle sound that is noticed when it disappears rather than when it begins. This work belongs to a series inspired by a singular early project—a silent alarm clock, designed by Neuhaus in 1979. The device produced a drone that, growing from inaudible to a distinctly haunting volume, would induce the sleeping listener to wake up as the sound shut off. Similarly, in Time Piece Beacon, Neuhaus devised a continuous, gradual sound tapestry pitched at the upper limit of the natural ambient sounds of the area: “Initially inaudible, the sound will gradually emerge from the ambient noise
and then will suddenly stop.” The signal thus becomes the silence that ensues after the cessation of the sound. As another reference that informed the series, Neuhaus recalled the unifying role of bells in early modern societies, gathering the listeners audibly, but also delimiting the spatial perimeter of a community by means of vibrating, tactile sound resonance.
A pioneer in the fields of contemporary art and music, Neuhaus is credited with being the first to explore the role of sound as a primary medium for installations and site-specific pieces. Unlike music, his works are never a succession of changing audio events in time, but continuous markers of “a site as a whole and the different places within it.” For Neuhaus, sound was the material he used to “transform the space into a place.” Neuhaus explained that “trying to capture this work with a recording is as silly as chipping the paint off the canvas, putting it in a box and thinking you still have the painting.” One of a number of works from the Moment series, Time Piece Beacon is premised on perception as a whole, involving sight and hearing and touch—in other words, the visitor’s entire physical presence.
For each project, Neuhaus made a drawing-text diptych (the one corresponding to Time Piece Beacon is on view in Dia:Beacon’s galleries). This is what he called a “statement in another medium,” although this statement is mixed since it involves a visual description and a verbal one. Whereas in his drawings Neuhaus experimented with possible graphic and chromatic solutions to visualize sound, his written notes have surprisingly poetic qualities.
In addition to the presentation of his work in numerous exhibitions over the past forty years, today there are a dozen works by Neuhaus permanently installed in public and private venues. Along with his last installation at the Menil Collection, Houston, in 2008, the two works in Dia’s collection—Time Piece Beacon and Times Square (1977/2002) in New York City—are the only permanent installations by Neuhaus located in North America.
Many thanks to Phil Burk for his technical collaboration and support of Time Piece Beacon.