Art in America, September, 2003, pp.88-93
Wandering in a Zurich museum some years ago, with dreary weather outside and drearier art inside, I came across a monitor continuously playing a video so humorous and ingenious that it completely changed my mood. It was Christian Marclay's "Telephones" (1995), a 7 1/2-minute compilation of brief Hollywood film clips that creates a narrative of its own. These linked-together snippets of scenes involve innumerable well-known actors such as Cary Grant, Tippi Hedren, Ray Milland, Humphrey Bogart and Meg Ryan, who dial, pick up the receiver, converse, react, say good-bye and hang up. In doing so, they express a multitude of emotions--surprise, desire, anger, disbelief, excitement, boredom--ultimately leaving the impression that they are all part of one big conversation. The piece moves easily back and forth in time, as well as between color and black-and-white, aided by Marclay's whimsical notions of continuity. A shot of a woman decked out in '70s tiger-patterned clothing is followed by one of Whoopi Goldberg talking on a zebra-striped phone. A man saying "I haven't been able to think or concentrate on anything but you" segues to another man's perplexed reaction: "I see," he says. The individual soundtracks are surprisingly successful in setting a mood even in such minute segments, and Marclay uses them, along with other inherent effect--dialing, ringing, beeping, voices, the receiver being dropped or slammed down--to create a rhythmic tone poem.
Not since I first encountered the work of Nam June Paik had I seen video that so successfully montages bits of found footage to create an overriding abstraction, and where the resulting sound was as intrinsically compelling as the visuals. It was no surprise to learn, therefore, that, like Paik, who made his start with John Cage in the early avantgarde music scene, Marclay, who was born in 1955, is not only trained as an artist but is well known as an experimental musician. His instrument is the turntable, and he is credited with being among the first DJs to sample and mix the works of others into unique compositions. Marclay's current retrospective, which was organized by Russell Ferguson of the UCLA Hammer Museum, comprises over 60 works from 1980 to the present, including colage, painting and sculpture, as well as installation, video and performance, all of which explore visual connections to the experience of music.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is "Video Quartet" (2002), in which, as in "Telephones," Marclay applies his abilities as a DJ to mix not recordings but film, resulting in an ambitious 17-minute work that is a kaleidescopic tapestry of often-hilarious sights and sounds. Monumental in scale, it is made up of four 8-by-10-foot projections set side by side, simultaneously playing fragments of footage from over 100 films that depict various forms of sound-making, from actors and performers singing, tap-dancing and playing instruments, to car crashes and tin cans falling down stairs. One quickly loses the impulse to identity the protagonists, who include such diverse personalities as Arthur Rubinstein, Elvis, Harpo Marx, Maria Callas, Julie Andrews and Marilyn Monroe, and simply revels in the orchestrated cacophony of layered sound and image that sweeps with staccato swiftness across the four screens.
Marclay begins with instruments tuning up, then seamlessly guides us through peaks and valleys of reflection and tumult to a crescendo of explosions and high C's. He avoids an overwhelming bombardment of the senses by developing light themes--such as those of similar instruments or a segment where vocalists sing "yes" and "no" to each other in enigmatic dispute--with some clips repeatedly jumping from screen to screen creating visual and aural texture and pattern. Brief and separated from their original context, the images carry no meaning, and the viewer experiences the sights of people and places primarily as abstraction, actively and with rhythm; it's a visual experience that works primarily on the level of sensation rather than intellect, similar to what you feel listening to music. At the same time, it is conceivable (and was surely intended) that the soundtrack of Video Quartet could stand on its own, a composition of which Edgar Varese would have been proud.
Often, however, Marclay doesn't deal with actual sound at all, but with the possibility--or just as frequently the impossibility--of sound. The exhibition leaves the impression that there is nothing that can be done to or with records that Marclay hasn't tried: he breaks them, paints on them, has people walk on them, puts them through a printing press, or on a turntable strapped around his neck like a guitar and scratches them. While CDs are less ubiquitous in his work, at least so far, Marclay has, among other things, made a "fountain" of accumulating recording tape, woven it into a net and wrapped a violin in it, Christo-style. His sculpture includes fanciful fabricated impossible-to-play instruments: drums whose stems have grown, like Alice in Wonderland's neck in the Tenniel illustrations, to such heights that only a giant could reach them; an accordion lengthy enough to be a Chinese New Year's dragon; or guitars that look as if they were left in the backseat of the car during a heat wave, their necks melted and droopy. By altering instruments, Marclay triggers a response in the viewer, who is compelled to imagine what it would be like to attempt to play such a thing, or what kind of sound it would make. Looking at them, I think of the piano that Jospeh Beuys encased in a slipcover of gray felt. Like many of Marclay's instruments, Beuys's piano has a slightly anthropomorphic look, in this case because the cover causes the pedals to look like toes. When I see an ordinary piano in a room, I simply register that it's a piano, nothing more. But when I see it muffled in felt, I automatically fantasize about the stifled sound it would emit. So it is with Marclay's "Drumsticks" (2000), which are made of glass. It's almost impossible to look at them without considering both the awkwardness of using them, the delicate tap one would have to make in order not to break them, and the sound of cracking and shattering when they inevitably did fall to pieces.
Music was not a memorable part of Marclay's childhood. "Christmas music," he says, was the only thing that stands out. Born in California, he describes his upbringing in Switzerland by his American mother, a housewife, and Swiss father, a dental technician, as distinctly middle class. It's significant that the first record to make a substantial impression on him was the Beatles' "White Album," its cover a work of conceptual art by the English Pop artist Richard Hamilton, who was, as Marclay would turn out to be, strongly influenced by Duchamp. (The Beatles continue to be a subject of fascination for Marclay, and they figure prominently in his work, which in this exhibition includes a pillow both crocheted and stuffed with taped recordings of their complete output.)
Marclay went to school to study art, but when he arrived in New York in 1977 for a year as an exchange student at Cooper Union, he was more affected by the scene he encountered at clubs such as CBGB, Tier 3 and the Mudd Club than by his classes. It was the height of performance art, new wave and punk, with hip-hop just about to be born. Listening to punk made Marclay want to make music, and here he believes his lack of formal education was an advantage. Not knowing what was allowed and what was not, he felt free to try things at will.
Marclay's art school training (he ultimately received an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art), however, is clearly evident in his visual work. His sculpture has discernible relationships to that of other artists, not only Beuys but even more obviously Jasper Johns, in, for example, "Glasses" (1991), where Marclay replaces eyeglass lenses with telephone earpieces, the way Johns placed talking mouths behind eyeglass frames in "The Critic Sees" (1961). And then there is "Boneyard" (1990), for which Marclay scattered white plaster casts of telephone receivers across the floor as Nancy Graves did with bones. In comparison with Video Quartet, which is a major achievement, and considering the searing social commentary of which he is capable, Marclay's "art puns" and conceptual pieces seem just a bit too obvious to the art-world insider and too obscure to the uninitiated. They are one-trick potties--once you get it, the piece is exhausted--while the other work feels loose, unfettered, potentially unlimited.
Marclay's sophisticated art background shows up best in the formal qualities of his work. He pays as much attention to form, texture, color and composition as he does to the conceptual underpinnings. His paintings and collages on record covers, for instance, do not depend on their source for interest but stand on their own as esthetic objects. "It's important to make an object that's visually attractive," Marclay says, "because it gets people involved, whether or not they relate to the subject matter."
Marclay, who works primarily with found material, is adept at taking things out of context and placing them in another that either alters or subverts the intended meaning of the object, or gives rise to an inadvertent one. Of the wealth of art that has commented on gender roles, none has spoken to me as personally as Dictators and Incognito (both 1990), two simple groupings of record covers, 25 and 30 each, placed on the wall in a grid. The first is a collection of classical albums by venerated conductors, with a standard format for the cover graphics: the conductors are seen from the waist up, caught in action against a dark background. With brows knitted in thoughtful expression, they are dressed either in formal attire or a rumpled shirt, the sign of a man who sweats for his genius. Seen one at a time, they appear fairly benign, but when Marclay puts them together--he attaches the covers to each other with metal strips and screws--all these men with their upraised hands and batons take on a distinctly militaristic aspect, so that Austrian Herbert yon Karajan's outstretched arm, for instance, could be seen as a Nazi salute. At the very least, these are men in control. These albums, many with the traditional yellow Deutsche Gramophone banner, were ubiquitous in my family home, and I see now that the message they conveyed to me, the young female piano student, was "don't even think about becoming a conductor."
In its companion piece, Marclay brings together another equally familiar style of album covers, this time those with photos of beautiful young women who have had absolutely nothing to do with generating the music on the recording contained within; they are there simply as garnish. One woman is lying, with the skirt of her blue dress fanned out, on top of a grand piano, inexplicably holding up a cane on which she is twirling a top hat. Another, adorning a flamenco album, has a red rose in her teeth. Some are represented as childlike: one playing on a swing, another dressed as a cowgirl in short shorts, yet another blowing bubbles. If they take any role at all related to the music, it is as an audience, dancing or listening dreamily. These women are nameless and interchangeable, valued only for their sexual charge, as Marclay indicates by sewing the covers to each other with zippers. The albums are of a style that appeared in the 1950s and early '60s, yet even today it's as hard to picture a female conductor on an album cover (what would she wear?) as it is to imagine Herbert von Karajan blowing bubbles.
For the "Body Mix" series (1991-92), Marclay stitched together two or more cardboard record covers (he learned to use a sewing machine for that express purpose) to create hybrid figures offering humorous juxtapositions. Here the conductors take a further drubbing, as Marclay stitches an album cover showing one of them from the waist up to another depicting a woman's lower body. The idea that feminizing a man is a way of demeaning him, whereas the opposite is not true, is food for thought all by itself. When Beethoven's Eroica Symphony tops an album called "The Fifties," we have Carlo Maria Giulini in performance wearing tight black pants and twirling hula-hoops. We get to see Leonard Bernstein in a polka-dot dress in one instance, dancing with bare legs and high heels in another, Andre Previn in fishnets and the venerable Leopold Stokowski conducting in red hot pants while a gaggle of hippie guys looks on. The other covers Marclay uses in the series are from pop albums: a man who is having is head shaved with the letters AC/DC finds his body morphing into one that is half-naked, small-waisted and seductive, wearing skintight silver shorts. In Marclay's hands, Michael Jackson begins to achieve the figure of his dreams: propped seductively on one elbow like an odalisque, he shows off a torso that is slim, browl, female and bikinied; one bent leg is also brown, but the other, outstretched, is pale and slender, a case of "whiteness," as Douglas Kahn observes in one of the exhibition's catalogue essays, "beginning to creep up one leg."
Artists who incorporate symbols of mainstream culture into their work tap into a wealth of accumulated meaning, as the practitioners of Pop were certainly aware. But film and popular music have more pemonal associations than do Campbell's soup cans or even the American flag, because they are the accompaniments to our intimate histories. We remember what movie we saw on our first date; the Hollywood stars of our childhood were our personal icons; and for many of us, pop music is the soundtrack to our life. When, in another context, we come across the cover of an album we once owned, it's like seeing an old friend, and it takes only the slightest stimulas to trigger a phrase from the plethora of musical bits we carry in our heads. This use of pop components not only makes Marclay's work acceasible to an audience wider than the one that usually frequents museums, it also gives it an added emotional charge. And surprisingly, although it often includes objects from the past, Marclay's art is hardly nostalgic. Instead, he applies a musician's process and sensibility to these familiar elements to create something entirely new, and the mix is right.
"Christian Marclay," curated by Russell Ferguson, opened at the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles [June 1-Aug. 31] and is currently on view at the Center for Curatorial Studies Museum, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. [Sept. 28-Dec. 19]. It travels to the Seattle Art Museum [Feb. 5-May 2, 2004] and the Kunstmuseum Thun, Switzerland [June 12-Sept. 6, 2004]. The show is accompanied by a 202-page catalogue with essays by Ferguson, Douglas Kahn, Miwon Kwan and Alan Licht. Marclay's multimedia installation The Bell and the Glass was seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art [May 17-July 6].
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