The Hidden Noise: Tinnitus and Art
Hosted by OVADA, commissioned artists Fern Thomas and Nina Thomas transformed our warehouse into a multi-layered exploration of their shared experiences of tinnitus. Many thanks to the artists, the curator Lucy Phillips, and all who helped put this exhibition together.
Reproduced here with kind permission of:
Issue 455, January 2022
Nina Thomas & Fern Thomas
The Hidden Noise
Ovada, Oxford, UK
“For the tinnitus sufferer,” wrote Marie Thompson in her 2017 book Beyond Unwanted Sound, “silence can be unbearable in that it maximises the audibility of the sounds induced by the condition.” For Thompson, the example of tinnitus gives the lie to an aesthetic moralism which would presume the benevolence of peace and quiet, the baneful powers of noise.
An exhibition at Oxford’s Ovada Gallery, exploring the ‘hidden noise’ of a symptom thought to affect up to 15 per cent of people, goes far beyond the high-pitch whine familiar from Hollywood films like Baby Driver. Tinnitus, as the exhibition booklet reminds us, is the conscious perception of any sound “for which there is no external source”. In that sense, the condition may make audible truths about sound that cross the listening spectrum, troubling the very distinction between noise and silence.
Co-curated by Thompson with Patrick Farmer, The Hidden Noise is part of an ongoing research programme into tinnitus and art funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Situated down a quiet lane near Oxford’s central station, Ovada has the feel less of an art institute than a bike mechanic’s lock-up. But the rawness of the venue somehow suits a show dealing in the messy entanglements of noise and place. For artists Nina Thomas and Fern Thomas (no relation) nothing is ever quite as clear and pristine as a white cube.
The only sound audible in the gallery comes from a film by Nina Thomas screening on a loop. [the sound of memory] dissolves together hazy images of seashores, bare-branched trees and hands shown in extreme close-up, all filtered in a wash of indigo, reminiscent of old school Hollywood day for night shooting. A soundtrack of quiet ambient sounds is overlaid with a single voice dreamily murmuring a simple five-note melody over and over again, like an ear worm or Proust’s “little theme” by Vinteuil.
Nina Thomas lost her hearing as an adult, shortly after graduating from her visual arts degree. Her tinnitus emerged around the same time, like a phantom limb. The film reflects this haunted experience of sound, with everything deferred, at a slight remove — even the projection screen is partially obscured from the viewer by a loose screen of linen hanging before it.
Outside, the installation continues with seven archival boxes refashioned as miniature coffins for lost sounds. In each box, a folded white blanket cushions the shattered remains of a disc — like a record, but made of clay tinted the same moonlight blue as the film footage. The lines scratched into the surfaces of these discs suggest the possibility of an impossible seance for the ghosts of noises.
The other work in the show, by Fern Thomas, appears like an exercise in speculative archaeology. Seven display cases gather a curious miscellany of materials: postcards, marbles, a lichen-covered twig, pages from old geological textbooks. The centrepiece of each box, neatly typed all lower case on coarse grey paper, is a sort of poem reimagining the experience of tinnitus as interspecies communication conducted with mycelium networks, glaciers, or “the angelic realm”.
If that sounds twee, Thomas’s cabinets have something of the uncanny feel of Joseph Cornell’s boxes and the concept is pure sci-fi. Like Nina Thomas’s audio ghosts, Fern Thomas fashions tinnitus into a figure for the very limits of sound, both present and absent, suggestive of radically different forms of listening.
Nina Thomas, Silence, 2020
Nina Thomas a visual artist, using the mediums of video, photography, artist publication and installation. She is interested in stories and histories which might be overlooked or underexplored. Much of her recent work has focused on her experience of becoming deaf and subsequently seeking to understand deaf histories and experiences. A few years ago, she began making work which explores tinnitus as a bodily experience and its relationship to other experiences of loss. Nina has exhibited at venues such as Tate Exchange, St. Margaret’s House, LUX (online) and HeART in Chatham. She is also a founding member of The Film Bunch (a deaf and hard of hearing film organisation).
Fern Thomas, an inventory of practice, 2019
Fern Thomas is an artist and writer working in text, sound, performance and participatory practice. Her work explores folk-belief, place-based knowledge and histories, archives and pedagogical spaces; and is increasingly drawn to examining the invisible capacities of vibration. She has exhibited in Norway, Mexico, New Zealand, Germany, USA and in venues across the UK including Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London. She is currently has a Fellowship with g39 gallery, Cardiff as part of the Freelands Foundation Arts Programme and is part of the Tŷ Cerdd Experimental Sound Programme in Cardiff