If I’m being truly honest,” Maya Dunietz: Root of Two” feels very redemptive, almost like a spiritual experience. This is clearly one of Bemis Center’s most experimental exhibitions in recent years relying primarily on something that can’t even be seen: the ephemeral nature of sound rather than physical objects. That, and the work is oftentimes humorous.
With the last in-house exhibition on “Empathy All Together, Amongst Many: Reflections,” happening during the most controversial period in Omaha’s art world that highlighted how horrific and entrenched racism continues to impact the arts in town, the exhibition was poorly received as virtue signaling and tokenism. It also was just too intellectual spread out, with no common throughline that unified all the works in that show.
But stripping away all that, Maya Dunietz, the artist from Tel Aviv, takes visitors into an abstracted realm, somewhere where art and engineering exists without conflict. It’s an examination of the body through sound. Here’s the kicker, you can touch and even go inside most of the artworks.
“It became one big thing, it is in a way, a big orchestral piece that invokes eight lines of thought,” Dunietz said in a recent interview. ““The building is reacting very warmly to the sound.”
The first gallery is very reliant on metaphors to the body, like the heart, the lungs and the brain.
“25Hz – 25fps” is the first work you see, surprisingly without sound. It’s a recording of a speaker slowly increasing in frequency to match the rate a camera catches images. It’s like a heartbeat that speeds up, then suddenly stops as they sync together. It’s a “visual illusion of the medium,” Dunietz said.
The next two works are totally surreal. They are three disembodied lungs, and a brain on a plate. The artist sees these works as a type of ballet performance. The lungs inflate and deflate at different rates, eventually syncing up and then collapsing. The brain too dances, and you can hear the mechanical interior moving the piece, with an implication that you ought to eat it.
Duneitz revealed in a walkthrough that the plate in this artwork comes from her home.
In the following room is the exhibition’s magnum opus, a gallery with 17 pianos. “These are pianos that were abandoned,” Dunietz said. Bemis collected the pianos over a year, and the artist worked on them for three months during her residency in 2021.
With the help of studio assistant Alex Jacobsen, these objects were decked out with these devices called “ButtKickers.” What they do is use magnets within the object to create vibrations, and installed on the pianos, they not only vibrate, but force the piano to make sound.
The pianos are still functional, even though they’re not playing a classical composition. Dunietz hit a few keys and they sounded.
“In sound art, especially in work that makes objects into speakers, by making sound, you’re revealing the soul of the object,” Jacobsen said. So it can aslo be said Dunietz is revealing the soul of these pianos.
Going further with some symbolism, the artist organized the pianos in familial groups. One is called “Mama,” another “Papa,” and two similar pianos are called “Twins.”
“These are the sounds of the family, the sound of connection,” says Dunietz.
And you’re free to touch, sit, and wrap yourself on the works. It almost feels blasphemous to touch them, but part of the experience is feeling the vibrations and feeling and hearing how the sound adjusted to, and within your body.
Another favorite is “Air Sculpture,” a piece made in collaboration with Ghédalia Tazartès, a French musician. What is usually a theater at Bemis has been made into a dark room with a five-way sound system. It’s dark, very dark. Your eyes need to adjust to the room before you can see the couch in the center and see some blue lights reflecting on what looks like warped reflective plastic.
It’s a compendium of recordings from Algeria, Morocco, India, and France that play on top of one another in a geological narrative. The room itself feels cavernous and purely experiential. You can sit on a provided couch, or do as I did and walk around, listening to the recordings.
The following gallery presents work in collaboration with David Lemoine, titled “Bemis Surprise.” These objects were made during Dunietz’s residency in 2021 using materials sourced from the residency’s material’s lab. Of the three works, two are stand-ins for each respective artist, and an answering machine acting as a mediator between the two.
During the walkthrough, Maya asked me to kneel within Lemoine’s sculpture, where she said something like “praying like a Catholic boy.” She then took a photo of me faux-praying.
Lemoine’s sculpture looks very industrial, made of metal bars with electrical units emitting the flashy and static sound of electricity you think of when you think of electricity. It was very spiritual.
In the final gallery is an installation called Boxes. Simple plywood boxes are used as speakers to play music by the newly formed banned Possibilities of Milk, with members Dunietz, Lemoine, Haggai Fershtmanm and Daniel Mier.
It’s loud, and I mean loud.
As spectators, you’re encouraged to touch and even go into the boxes, just like the pianos to really listen in and experience the music.
It’s been a long time since Bemis exhibited something fun and playful, and this was really fun. Like the artist says, “There’s sound inside the viewer, it resonates with the art.”
“Maya Dunietz: Root of Two” runs until September 11 at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Bemis Center is located at 724 South 12 Street, Omaha NE 68102. Gallery hours are Wednesday 11am-5pm, Thursday, 11am-9pm, Friday-Sunday 11am-5pm. For more information, visit the Bemis Center’s website: https://www.bemiscenter.org/