Musica Universalis


Barbican Arts Group Trust, London

on view 12 - 29 September 2019

Humans have long been driven by an urge to explore, to expand their borders from land, to sea, to sky, to space. Musica Universalis, the first solo exhibition in London by the artist Yambe Tam, embodies the last unexplored landscapes both spatial and metaphysical within our reach: the deep ocean, home to a diverse ecosystem of undiscovered creatures undisturbed for millions of years, and the vastness of deep space, infinite, full of structures that defy our understanding of physics and possibly other life-bearing worlds.

Bringing to mind the connections between ecology, exploration, evolution, and transcendence, the exhibition asks if it is wise to uncover these unknown spaces - which undoubtedly contain a wealth of information and resources - while the urge to exploit and possess still drives human nature. This attitude, seemingly inherent, is a cornerstone of Western thinking; however in other parts of the world, there exist alternative ways of existing with each other and the planet. Eastern philosophies such as Shintoism and Buddhism recognise humans as part of the natural world, respectful of other lifeforms and accountable for our actions within the totality of living organisms on Earth - a superorganism that the scientist James Lovelock calls Gaia. For centuries, mankind’s separation from nature and desire to master it has driven scientific and technological innovation. Now, at a crucial point of the Anthropocene that will determine the future of the planet and our species, we are only beginning to see the effects.

In Musica Universalis, each suspended sculpture takes the shape of a cosmological portal such as a wormhole, black hole, or white hole, while the grounded pieces are abstractions of marine life. Equally inspired by ritual instruments in Zen Buddhism, they combine the spiritual and scientific to suggest similar consolidations of longstanding binaries (e.g. intuition and logic, masculine and feminine, humankind and the natural world) as an evolutionary path forward. An electronic system of feedback microphones and sound exciters designed by experimental musician Henry Toh vibrates the sculptures to reveal the harmonic resonance of their materials such as cast bronze, steel, wood, polyurethane, and ceramic - their invisible materiality. The grounded “drums”, abstractly shaped as marine lifeforms, slowly keep time at a tenth of the speed of a standard clock, while suspended “bells”, shaped like wormholes, black holes, and other cosmological structures, sing a ghostly chorus of overtones that recall the vastness of sea and space. The generated sounds create a binaural effect similar to that used in sound healing practices to affect the human body and mind, creating the potential for transcendence, or at least an altered perception of space and time.

About the artist

Working primarily in sculpture and installation, Yambe Tam (b. 1989, USA, lives and works in London) examines the evolution of consciousness through scientific and spiritual lenses. Her methodology is based on research in cognitive science, theoretical physics, psychology, and Eastern philosophy as well as her personal experience in Zen Buddhism and contemplative practice. Her works often take the form or function of portals - gateways of external or internal transformation and are modeled on aberrations of time and space, e.g. worm holes, black holes, sound frequency patterns. She earned her MA from the Royal College of Art in 2018, and her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2012. Solo exhibitions include “Eternal Return” at Raum Z13, Essen, Germany (2019) and “Musica Universalis” at the Barbican Arts Trust, London (2019), the latter of which was awarded from winning the 2018 Artworks Open. She has also exhibited recently with Subject Matter at the Hospital Club, Zero Corners at Gallery 46, and Lumen Studios in London and been featured in publications such as Floor Magazine, FAD Magazine, and the Washington Post. She is a 2019 grantee of Arts Council England.