Spring Arts: On the Pipes at Suyama Space

Why Suyama Space is the city's most quietly interesting gallery.

Big art installations are generally limited to museums, which can offer the square footage, trucks, and manpower necessary to deploy large sculptural objects that demand lots of room. Big art is expensive. Western Bridge has done a great job with some enormous, challenging pieces over the years, but that former warehouse is scheduled to close at the end of this summer, after eight years of support from owners Ruth and Bill True. Maybe because it doesn't throw the same kind of splashy opening parties, however, the quieter Belltown atrium that is Suyama Space has, with less fanfare, continued its mission for more than 13 years. Located in an old auto garage, the gallery is run by architecture firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi, whose George Suyama and curator Beth Sellars began housing large modernist works there in 1998.

The ongoing sculpture-and-sound piece Uprising makes excellent use of the creaky old building, with its high rafters and skylight overhead. At first glance it appears that Rick Araluce has bolted together a tangle of rusty old pipes of varying gauges. The steel seems to erupt from the floor and reach for the sky. Take a picture, flip your camera over, and it's like you're peering up at the ceiling of your basement, preparing to unclog the shower line. From a normal perspective, the jumbled array could be mistaken for a jungle gym. (Parents with kids may have to physically restrain them from climbing the installation.) You can walk through, around, duck under, step across. There's the suggestion of Gas Works Park, drunken plumbers, or a convention of bassoons.

Which brings us to the other component of Uprising. Here's where you stop walking, listen intently, and pick up an intermittent hissing or drone. There's a pattern, but it's not exactly regular. If your ears are acute, wandering around Uprising, the same pattern can be detected at various pipe-ends of varying diameter. More and more, you realize, they're like trumpet bells or woodwind instruments—tubes resonating with noise . . . or possibly music? But what kind of music?

This is where Uprising's co-creator, Steve Peters, comes in. The local musician and sound artist explains what we're hearing: "It's the HVAC system, it's the building settling, planes flying overhead, the traffic outside. I go in, and I hit the record button, and I leave." The result is called room tone—what most of us think of as silence or the white-noise background of our daily lives. Peters collected the basic material with microphones at Suyama Space before Uprising was installed. Later, "I also recorded new material in there and stuck some mikes in the pipes." None of which would be very audible or interesting to visitors, when they near their ears to the open pipes, if not for Peters' subsequent digital manipulation with filters and other software. By way of analogy, he says "It's like taking a beam of white light and putting it through a prism so you can see the color."

With five different CD players on endless loop, the same 40-minute track emanates from within Uprising—though staggered and overlapping. The sound flows like water, as it were. "There are speakers in the pipes," Peters explains. "The bigger the pipe, the more low frequencies you're gonna get. The pipes are actually processing the signal." In other words: big pipe, tuba; little pipe, piccolo.

And about those pipes. Local artist Araluce has as his day job the task of creating elaborate sets and props for Seattle Opera. Things must look big and impressive, but be easy to move. If you rap your ballpoint pen against the sculpture (but please don't), he explains, you won't hear the ring of iron. "It's all faux, it's all fake," he laughs. The PVC pipes have been painted and rusticated to look like iron and metal. "It made it much easier to transport."

He adds, "A plumber friend of mine said, 'Those are like Dr. Seuss fittings.' " Which, when you think about it, is actually high praise.


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