To take any one of a number of marine studies – 'Waves Breaking Against the Wind', for example – is to experience the illustriously greying waters of a British coast in a sempiternal state of mild annoyance. Living for a number of years on an island as small as Great Britain necessitates, at some point, an encounter with a windy shoreline; whether it be a sort of shivery, sub-par bucket-and-spade ceremony or a pleasantly uncomfortable offseason dog walk. And so we can all understand what it is Turner painted. I picture Turner with his dad in a Berghaus jacket, or Turner with blue lips in a swimsuit insisting that ice cream is profoundly and urgently necessary. Turner eating a sandwich and watching the waves from a parked Mondeo. Turner as a wet Jack Russell. We may never have experienced the coast in Kent, Norfolk, Cumbria or Shetland as sublime or awe-inspiring or anything other than pleasant, but we can imagine how it would have happened for Turner.
So, in 'Waves Breaking Against the Wind', there is an indistinct merging of the sky and the water’s surface that feels like a direct experience, because it is. Turner had endured a tonne of mildly unpleasant weather and then had to figure out how to portray it so it looked just as mildly unpleasant as it felt. And somehow he managed to fix constant movement onto the canvas: looking at these paintings is to hear a papery whistle and a sharp sting inside the ear, or the slowly oscillating white noise of waves. Appreciating a Turner involves not just imagining the movement in the paint, but hearing it. With the more violent paintings it is permitted to imagine yourself within, an implausible volume of water on top of you and muffled, flat sounds around your head and lungs.
Margate’s – or Turner’s – coast is, as any other, rarely quiet. The gallery sits at its edge. From any side the approach leaves you vulnerable to an unctuous, wheezy hum or a vague whistle. It relaxes in the shelter of the building, ceasing completely on entering. It is clean and there are people without coats on. You are allowed the sound of your shoes on the concrete. The North Sea has been taken away and is reintroduced in a vast double height window, closer and separate.
This is then what it is like to view a Turner. Green brown grey sea flattened behind glass, brought close and completely silent; all the annoyance of ‘seaside’ is gone behind a cinema style screen. Now it’s past experience or recognition or nostalgia or Schadenfreude, like the joy we get from viewing 'Waves Breaking Against the Wind' or 'The Slave Ship' or 'The Morning After the Deluge', and thinking about poor old Turner tied to a ship. Distancing, framing, and the exclusion of environmental sound remove the idea of experiencing the waves on the shoreline, and presents the horizon and sea to be studied rather than experienced. The unconfined sound of shifting waves, originating from the object viewed, is replaced by an undulating chatter of school groups around and behind the viewer.
Just as damp winds and the complexities of light on a north-facing shore facilitate understanding of Turner’s experience, so the decentering experience of a too-loud gallery speaks of the experience of looking at a Turner, or looking at a Picasso, a Holbein or a Van Gogh. And you aren’t looking at a Turner if there aren’t other people there looking with you.
Brian Sewell has decided that one of his many complaints about the building should be its sound. It sounds wrong. He states that “everywhere I was troubled by the noise: all surfaces are hard and clean and from them sound repeatedly rebounds to create a muffled blur of background babel – silent contemplation has no role in this building”.1 The validity of this comment depends entirely on whether the requirement of Turner Contemporary is that it be a place of “silent contemplation”. Turner’s work is necessarily noisy, and within the gallery the wind outside that whimpers or screams hysterically and batters children is replaced by the sound of other people. Sound, as with weather, situates the visitor in time and space – emphasising the link between the paintings and their coastal birthplace. The voices of twenty children in a gallery may be indistinguishable or they may be nonsense, but the sounds they produce describe the space in which they originate. If we consider where a sound comes from and where it goes, then every word uttered is an act of direct communication. So Brian Sewell’s “noise” does not operate to separate an individual as a listener. Instead, according to Brandon LaBelle in 'Acoustic Territories', it does the opposite – acting to “weave an individual into a larger social fabric, filling relations with local sound, sonic culture, auditory memories, and the noises that move between, contributing to the making of shared spaces.”
So the noise (or unwanted data) of the gallery is not a failure of sound insulation or an ill-planned concrete floor, but a body of people whose communication is unwelcome. The “background” that Sewell speaks of is one that he contributes to: not a background but a centrality. The "silent" contemplation he desires is not a desire for silence, but seclusion, where every necessary sound becomes an act of assertion over an interior; of talking to oneself. Studies simulating blindness in rodents have been conducted in order to document how the deprivation of one sense affects the others. This cannot be done with hearing. Complete deprivation of hearing is impossible to simulate due to sound being relentlessly self-generated from within the body or experienced as physical sensations.
From the claustrophobic ticking of the body, existing in a crowded space is emancipatory; the dull pulse of blood across eardrums and the rustle of hair on collars is muted by speech that reverberates as collectively omnidirectional, inflating and filling, uniformly, the prescribed space. Speech internalised by a warm interior buzzing from the larynx becomes a separate, communal body of sound.