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Pet Sounds 

Douglas Hollis combines audio with visual in his larger-than-life environmental sculptures

Wednesday, Feb 14 1996
Named for Aeolus, the god of wind, Douglas Hollis' Aeolian Harp towers like an alien creature over the entrance to the Exploratorium. A choir of strings stretches between three curved steel-and-aluminum sculptures, forming a lyre across which the bay breezes blow. Vibrations from the strings transmit the sound mechanically to a cluster of pan-shaped "speakers" that hang above the science museum's glass doors.

Listen closely: Sonically nestled between the voices of excited children and the rush of Marina Boulevard traffic, the Aeolian Harp whines and sings with the whims of the wind, her lonely cry as chilling as it is beautiful, an awkward-looking piece of technology that gives sound to one of nature's silent voices.

"Plato probably heard it, being a keen listener himself," says Hollis of his take on the ancient instrument, one that first appeared as a "garden curiosity" in the 1400s. Hollis' acoustic sculpture -- built in 1977 as one of the Exploratorium's first-ever Artist-in-Residency programs -- represents one of several in the artist's portfolio, a body of work that marries scientific phenomena and creative endeavor and results in its audience experiencing something of beauty -- through their ears. Hollis' works fit within the boundaries of neither art nor science.

"The visual aspect of the work is important to me," explains the artist, a Bay Area resident for 21 years whose sculptures appear in parks, corporate landscape plans, and the Exploratorium itself. "I do love beautiful instruments, whether a telescope or a wind harp; the work is never about one choice or the other. I've made a choice to emphasize sonic qualities because they often seem to be edited or ignored."

A good example is Hollis' Rain Column, the awe-inspiring cascade that marks the centerpiece of the Rincon Center's food court. The four-story waterfall adds a distinctly natural ambience to the urban lunchroom, its cooling hiss appealing to three senses -- aural, visual, and tactile. But it's the sound-fountain's pleasant curtain of white noise that best diffuses the potential coldness of the brick room.

"It was inspired by thinking about the way the sunlight would filter through the atrium during the day, to create a kind of phenomenal screen to catch it," Hollis says of the Column. "What's interesting is that it's not overpowering -- it's almost invisible at certain times. But the sound pervades the space. It has both an amplitude and a frequency that allows people to have a variety of experiences, ranging from contemplative to conversational."

In making such an explanation, Hollis, whose conversational tack varies between the starkly informational and the occasionally self-effacing, reveals much about himself: He's an artist, first and foremost, but he can't fully ignore the language of science.

"I think of myself as a translator," he says. "I'm bringing people's attention to the ephemeral events happening all around us, events that we either take for granted or ignore altogether. I'm trying to give a voice to that. The works are sensors of natural activity -- or the lack of it. I guess a kind of subplot of the work is once you start listening attentively, it's amazing what you hear."

Hollis' Wind Organ exemplifies the beauty one hears in his works. Located on a grassy bluff behind the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley and overlooking Lawrence Berkeley Lab's cyclotron, the sculpture appears at first as simply an outcropping of two dozen vertical poles, each constructed of varying height with a slotted top and an earhole -- most at children's level -- carved for close listening. But give a listen: Even on calm days, the sound of air movement through the pipes is fascinating. A constant low hum (caused by the wind itself) underscores alternating sounds, both natural and urban -- nearby birds chirping, a child's distant cry, a faraway siren -- to form an amplified and focused soundscape of everyday noise. Each pipe reveals a slight variation on the movement and pitch of sounds.

A participant in the late-'60s art scene in Ann Arbor, where Hollis attended the University of Michigan, the sculptor cites the influence of artistic pioneers including Bob Ashley and Milton Cohen and sound experimenters like John Cage and Steve Paxton on his work. Yet another of Hollis' mentors was the man he worked with on the Aeolian Harp, the Bay Area's ultimate man of artistic science: Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer.

"He was curmudgeonly in a way, a benign dictator," Hollis says of the late Oppenheimer, who died in 1985. "But he had such an incredible way of engaging anybody: He was like a child himself in terms of his curiosity and his joy of discovery. It was infectious. He'd always ask the odd question or provoke the odd conversation, and that, coupled with his idiosyncrasies, made him an incredible human being to have known. I often said that the Exploratorium was like walking into Frank's head."

One of Hollis' best-known sound sculptures, the Listening Vessels, still sits on the museum's floor. Two 5-by-5-foot parabolas face each other separated by 25 feet -- "Too damn close," states Hollis, who says the Vessels' "magic" works at 90 or even 100 feet -- and whose construction includes a bench. Participants seated opposite can chat with each other in normal conversational tones, completely oblivious to the foot traffic between them.

"You can also sit passively and collect sound from the surrounding environment," Hollis says of the Listening Vessels, commissioned originally by the Matrix program at the University Art Museum in Berkeley. "People have a funny reaction to them. They provoke interesting issues about privacy: Certain paranoid entities get really uptight about the idea that someone can listen to a conversation that someone else is having."

"They've gotten about as much Mileage Plus as I have," laughs Hollis of the pieces, which recently returned from exhibitions in the lobby space of the Kennedy Center and Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in New York. "They've gotten around."

Other regional works include Hollis' sculpture for IBM's Santa Teresa research labs and a contribution to the De Young Museum's "Facing Eden" exhibit last year. His dramatic Wind Gate at Candlestick Point Recreation Area marks the promenade to an 18-acre postmodern landscape park, one designed with architect Mark Mack and landscaper George Hargreaves -- a project whose aborted budget resulted, to Hollis' frustration, in only two-thirds' completion. His latest project is finishing a dual-level courtyard for the USGS in Menlo Park, a massive "water work" he hopes to finish in April or May.

"I'm interested in some new potentials," Hollis says of the local art scene, his language of physical science creeping back into his speech. "Energies tend to move around in the world: They hang out in certain places for a while, build certain kinds of synergies and realities. They tend to drift. I'm looking for where it's happening now, interested in participating in a less-loaded, less-institutionalized situation. There are new generations of thinking I think are real interesting."

"We put more emphasis on our visual input than we ought to," opines the sculptor. "In some ways, my works are about trying to balance that out a little bit.

About The Author

Colin Berry


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