Articulating Sounds As Visual Imagery: Sam Belinfante, Penumbra, mima, Middlesborough

Review by Jareh Das

As you approach mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) in Centre Square the viewer is confronted by a resounding female operatic voice. One wonders where this voice is coming from; it starts, stops and as you listen attentively, words are not being sung but rather, short energetic hums float through the open space. At the entrance of mima, there is a muted video on a screen. It keeps going in and out of focus, the singer unrecognisable as it zooms in on her mouth, but where is the sound being emitted? I take a seat and then viola! I hear that voice I heard earlier in the square, it’s very faint in the gallery’s atrium but the longer I sit, the more prominently the voice oscillates.

For his first presentation at mima, London-based artist Sam Belinfante presents Penumbra (from Latin paene ‘almost’ and umbra ‘shade’) which is the indistinct outer-region of a shadow or the idea of being at the edge, fundamental to the piece. Belinfante came up with the idea for Penumbra after being invited to visit the gallery, the work being a direct response to its unique architecture and extensive open atrium space.

Belinfante’s projects endeavour to bridge the gap between the visual and the musical, his works existing in a curious space between performance and documentation. The artist is also interested in the unspoken, the transience between sound and meanings, at times influenced by Cageian notions of chance encounters. Penumbra exists as both audio and video although these two elements have been intentionally split by the artist across two floors of mima’s gallery spaces.

Visitors are able to move between both levels and either piece together muted video with the sound emanating from the terrace, or experience them as separate but associated works. The mysterious voice is that of renowned opera singer Lore Lixenberg who the artist requested to take an improvised journey across her voice. During this process an array of sounds, both intentional and accidental, were emitted as she gradually searches for a clearly voiced pitch. As sounds emerge, so do the images on the screen, with a camera lens pulling in and out of focus in symphony with the singer.

As a sound installation, the show demands the viewer to spend time and reflect on the voice of the singer, it makes you really listen and wonder about what constitutes ‘the spoken’. Belinfante’s decision to make this sound commission and video exist as separate but interrelated works allows for this sound piece to extend to into the realm of the visual, making sound exist on par with visual imagery and thus questioning how we articulate sound as visual imagery.

Sam Belinfante’s Penumbra will be on show at mima, Middlesborough until 10 July 2011. For more information please visit:

Tube Lines, 2008
3-Channel Video Installation
Courtesy the artist