Dowsing for Silence

By Denise Markonish
Curator, MASS MoCA


Dowsing is most often thought of in the realm of the supernatural. It is an activity where people claim to have a “sixth sense” as to where water (or sometimes metal or even missing persons) may be found underground. These dowsers go out with forked branches, pendulums or bent wires to feel for vibrations of water under the earth’s surface. Science debates that this “sensing” is merely sensitivity to electromagnetic fields, claiming that: ”…subtle electromagnetic gradients may result when natural fissures and water flows create changes in the electrical properties of rock and soil. Dowsers… somehow sense these gradients and unconsciously respond by wagging their forked sticks, pendulums or bent wires.”  This activity can also be explained by the ideomotor effect, which is a phenomenon of unconscious movement, exemplified by tears, automatic writing and even Ouija boards. Scientific skepticism aside, practitioners believe dowsing to be an act of faith. Either way, dowsing signals a connection to the signs found when in the landscape, paying attention to its smallest gestures. It is in this last sense of dowsing; one that is about a subtle connectivity of body and landscape, that Deborah Wing-Sproul enters the picture. For dowsing is a kind of faith in one’s body, a belief in its attunement with the landscape and collective consciousness, all of which are key elements of Wing-Sproul’s work.  

Wing-Sproul does not use a dowsing rod, but it is her body that responds to that which is below and around her, making evident her own unseen movements. Devices #1-3 begin with a posture – lying on one’s side, curled in a fetal position, and splayed out face down. For each performance, Wing-Sproul assumes a single posture, building an aluminum device/frame on which she can maintain her chosen stance. There is a stillness to the performance, in which Wing-Sproul uses only her toes to move each device along, with styluses in her hands making blind drawings on paper, copper plates or the floor directly below her. The styluses become her divining rods, connecting her to the concrete realm of the floor, which she hovers just above, making her own ideomotor gestures. One cannot help but think about this work in relation to the artist Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint series, especially the early iterations of this work (parts 1-6, done from 1987-9). In these performances, Barney would set up obstacles for himself throughout his studio – more akin to gym equipment than Wing-Sproul’s quietly elegant aluminum devices – in order to give himself something to push against while climbing the walls to make drawings. There is a fundamental difference between Barney and Wing-Sproul – one may say it is a male/female thing, aggressive or passive, but it is actually more about a silence versus bravura. Wing-Sproul is John Cage to Barney’s Mozart. As opposed to Barney’s solo grand gesture, Wing-Sproul’s body is a stand in for any body; her stance a representation of collective vulnerability, and a shared sense of continuation in the universe. 

When John Cage’s historic work 4’33” was first performed in 1952 the audience was stunned (and many angered) by the fact that the musician on stage played nothing. While 4’33” appears to be a silent piece, for Cage it was full of sound – nature outside, the breathing of the person next to you, the rustling of papers, etc. In fact Cage famously said that: There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.”  Wing-Sproul utilizes a similar type of silence or stillness in her work. Beginning with the slight movement in the Device performances to her works in the Tidal Culture series. 

Tidal Culture is an ongoing work in which Wing-Sproul has, thus far, gone to six locations in the North Atlantic (Maine, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands, and Outer Hebrides), and has plans to continue on to Ireland before broadening the piece to include all the oceans worldwide.  At each site, Wing-Sproul sits for an hour, back to the camera, facing the ocean and staring into its vastness. This is not an act of meditation or some spiritual quest, rather it is about facing the world in a very frontal manner, finding a meaningful way to enter into the dialogue. Wing-Sproul’s body, just as in the Device performances, is any body, and she places us, the viewer, as witness on the same plane as her. In the video, amidst this stillness, only the landscape betrays Wing-Sproul’s lack of motion. It is in this act of sitting/witnessing that stillness and silence converge; however both are embodied rather than devoid. Wing-Sproul illustrates a kind of silence theorized by Susan Sontag in her essay “The Aesthetics of Silence.”  In the text, Sontag writes: “…the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical; a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence.”   Staring into the sea with Wing-Sproul, or watching her traverse vast landscapes in Footfall, one cannot help but think of this dichotomy, of the empty void, of the noisy silence.

One of Wing-Sproul’s most recent works perfectly exemplifies this idea of embodied silence - Bowl of Milk. Wing-Sproul says: “I start with a bowl of milk. If that is too much information, I remove the milk. If that’s still too much information, I remove the bowl. And then I’m left with myself.”  This is exactly what her video shows, the artist sitting upright, going through the motions described above until all we are left with is the artist herself. The video, despite its simplicity, is lush, an almost sensuous reduction to that which is elemental: the self, the body, the silence.  

In the end, Wing-Sproul’s silence resounds as strongly as any sound; it comes bubbling up from the surface as if called forth with a dowsing rod. Sontag writes that: “Traditional art invites a look. Art that is silent engenders a stare. In silent art, there is (at least in principal) no release from attention, because there has never, in principal, been any soliciting of it. A stare is perhaps as far from history, as close to eternity, as contemporary art can get.”  And true to that, Wing-Sproul’s work captures us in its very silent stare. 



Denise Markonish is the curator at MASS MoCA where she has curated the exhibitions Nari Ward: Sub Mirage Lignum (catalogue); Petah Coyne: Everything That Rises Must Converge (catalogue: Yale University Press), Inigo Manglano-Ovalle: Gravity is a force to be reckoned with (catalogue: D.A.P); These Days: Elegies for Modern Times and Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape (catalogue: MIT Press). Markonish also co-edited with Susan Cross the book Sol LeWitt: 100 Views (Yale University Press). Markonish is currently working on multiple projects at MASS MoCA, including 3 permanent outdoor projects for 2011 by Michael Oatman, Stephen Vitiello and Jane Philbrick along with a survey of Contemporary Canadian art for Spring 2012.


1 “Finding Water With A Forked Stick May Not Be A Hoax: Dowsing Data Defy the Skeptics” Popular Mechanics, November 1998

2John Cage, Silence. (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. 1973).

3Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence, Aspen 5+6, April 1968. 

4Conversation with the artist, August 2011