Visual Arts: What the camera didn't hear


THE ROOM is filled with the sound of a wave as it crashes on a seashore and then, seemingly, rolls itself back and crashes again, and again, and again. Then there's laughter and a low rumble of applause which quickly gathers momentum. A group of German boy scouts are pictured in a campsite, tucking into the contents of their billycans, one turning to stare quizzically out at the viewer. William Furlong's latest audio- visual work to show in London is, at the very least, spatially disorientating.

The images, taken in the late Twenties and early Thirties, are of a group of Wandervogel, a German youth movement, and were printed up from a box of glass plate negatives which Furlong came across in a German market. Each photograph has been given an incongruous sound caption, such as "The Sounds of Footsteps in the City" or "The Sounds of the City at Night", all of which have been recorded and thrown together in an accompanying soundtrack which bounces around the gallery walls.

Eight speakers gang together to emit a cacophony. Bells peal out from one speaker to be echoed from another: a train passes; restaurant chatter burbles away in the corner; birds chirrup; a siren wails; someone coughs; silence descends; or is that the sound of an empty room? A bee begins to buzz, first from one speaker and then several, and suddenly the air is filled with invisible bees. The cocktail of disparate sounds conjures up a clash of associated images and leaves the head spinning.

In "An Imagery of Absence", Furlong has chosen familiar sounds to both the Twenties and Thirties and now, as a means of linking the past with the present. "The sounds I recorded are those that surround us all the time in the way that ambient sounds do. They are the sort of sounds that would have been around then and pull the images into the present. It is all about what happened next with these images and people."

The photographs are clearly the work of an amateur photographer, at times out of focus or sporting a wayward finger over part of the lens, but the end results are atmospheric and an evocative historical record of the German youth movement in the inter-war years. The activities of the great outdoors are presented in a romantic light: this is an idyllic pastoral existence where everybody is at one with the land - a visual aesthetic which artists were later encouraged to reproduce under the Third Reich.

Youth groups were numerous and popular in Germany between the wars, but all of them were eventually channelled into the Hitler Youth movement in 1939, when membership of that group was made compulsory. And while the peacetime pictures shown here capture an innocent enjoyment of outdoor life, it is impossible for them not to call to mind future events.

And on leaving the gallery, head still reeling from the barrage of discordant sounds and images, the Second World War British Spitfire and German Focke- Wulf suspended from the roof of the Imperial War Museum, appear more than a little apt.

William Furlong `An Imagery of Absence', the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 (0171-416 5000), until 28 February. Entrance to the museum, pounds 5 (adults)

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