Keeping Score

John Haber
in New York City

Christian Marclay and Sound Art

Anyone fed up with museum white cubes should head for the Whitney, where the space is wide open and the walls are black. For "Festival," a midcareer retrospective, Christian Marclay has turned day into night.

Spare white lines run its width, grouped in fives, like a Sol LeWitt wall drawing stretched to infinity. Videos play off to one side, like competing theaters, while two distinct performance venues face off in front, like late-night action in overdrive.

If architecture is frozen music, sound art could be its soft serve. It also looks beyond the ideal of the visual arts as the contemplation of silence. And Marclay's retrospective makes a good time to review the options. Artists have treated audio as merely the soundtrack, like classical music and classic architecture without human performers. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Natalie Jeremijenko both evoke the call of nature—even if, in one case, with vacuum cleaners. Amid the visual noise of so many large installations, sound art has had a lively recent history. Christian Marclay's Graffiti Composition (Muse X Editions/Paula Cooper, 1996–2002)

Night and day

Christian Marclay works between the visual arts, conceptual art, music, and performance, but one could just as well call it nightlife. His subject is sound, much as for Daniel Neumann, perhaps especially when it is silent. One video interprets a performance in sign language, while another creates a visual drum solo from the explosive syllables on candy wrappers and junk food. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Marclay has also collected examples of musical notation on clothing, book jackets, and album covers. As with William Engelen, who is to say whether they are design or scores?

He invites himself and other musicians to interpret those found scores—and, in another work, fragments of music criticism (needless to say, criticism of him). Still, one could not imagine his chosen medium as CDs rather than albums, even if downloads had not done a number on both. Born in 1955, Marclay comes with the awkward label turntablist, the kind of performer with vinyl that gives Chopin a backbeat and Hendrix a renewed delicacy. He plays DJ even on video. In his 1991 Smash Hit, he takes one LP after another off a vinyl stack and smashes it to pieces. His Hundred Turntable Orchestra lives up to its name.

For a DJ, a segue is very much like creating a collage or combine painting, only under time pressure. My friends from college radio all had nightmares of not finding the next record in time, facing an empty turntable and an awkward silence. Marclay is hardly an anxious sort himself. He has plastered cities with blank sheets of music, for others to complete the Graffiti Composition. That huge wall drawing amounts simply to staff lines, with chalk for visitors to write their own sound art. It looks less and less like a Sol LeWitt every day.

It also highlights his visual side. In Chelsea simultaneous with his retrospective, he displays torn photos of a small-town Fourth of July parade, although neither the rips nor the patriotism prove all that liberating. The Bell and the Glass from 2003 uses the coincidental cracks in the Liberty Bell and Duchamp's Large Glass, both in Philadelphia, as the occasion for more or less random video riffs on both. And with Marclay's last gallery show two years before his retrospective, that frozen music could almost be melting away, leaving behind a steel blue silence. Its photograms show sound art at its quietest and most visually compelling. One can see why Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Voice Tunnel garbles voices or Yoko Ono left sound out of Ono's performance art, give or take a primal scream.

Marclay could have been spinning out a kind of confection, frozen or not. In the photograms, white curves cross large, vertical fields of uniform color. Their spare weave rests comfortably within late Modernism, in a tradition that somehow accommodates both formalism and expression. Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg could both stake a claim. The actual medium, cyanotype, lends the ultimate in flatness. Soft white on rich blue hints at infinite space.

Before too long, one picks out a familiar image: the curves belong to audio tape, which has spilled every which way from plastic cassettes. Marclay has laid the results directly on photosensitive materials and exposed them to light. Ghosts haunt any form of photogram, including what Man Ray called his Rayograms. Marclay's version owes its name to the cyan pigment. And it, too, calls attention to both present surface and absent object.

Forget digital

Nearly abstract photography has had a resurgence. For years it has begged for the status of second-class citizen, the pitiful case of one art form aspiring to the dignity of another. Marclay can point to the spooky illusions of Op Art and Surrealism—and they again show Marclay's debt to Duchamp. Like Rivane Neuenschwander, Susan Philipsz, or Barbara Ess, he brings things up to date for an age of surveillance, though with audio rather than video recordings. The simplicity, the refusal of illusion, and the origins in audio equipment all matter: they call attention to both the grid and the electronics.

Too many trashy installations these days look like traces of a garage band. Did you catch "Playing the Building" by David Byrne, the noisy contraptions of David Ellis, and the one-stringed monster instrument by Olafur Eliasson two years ago? Art could have been having its very own Bang on a Can festival. Jason Rhoades has left behind the site of his loud parties. Naama Tsabar has made an electronic stringed instrument into a literal wall of sound, like the "gamelatron" of Aaron Taylor Kuffner, and William Cordova has stacked stereo speakers. With the daredevil contraptions of The Way Things Go, Fischli and Weiss, too, call attention to the video's silence.

Marclay puts collaboration ahead of blunt gestures. Like pretty much everyone associated with sound art, starting with John Cage and Nam June Paik, he trusts to chance and collaboration. At its worst, Marclay's trust amounts to complacency. At its best, it is practically a moral imperative. The principal performance at the Whitney, Screen Play, goes nowhere fast. Musicians noodle along, based on the projection behind them—but also because they care.

Dangerous currents run through that projection, of highway and ocean disasters, and pleasure runs through their response. When I arrived for the press review, the trio was already at it, a full hour ahead of schedule. They simply could not resist joining in. The chalkboard wall stood clean and elegant, before picking up its first contribution, an arts writer's word square. Two days later, chalk marks ran amok, and the sheer fact of their giving out six feet or so above the floor testified to Marclay's collaborative, human scale. So does the stellar cast of performers from the experimental music scene joining in throughout the run.

The impromptu performance had to quit for opening remarks. The latter shared the facing stage with a bit of sound sculpture, borrowed from Marclay's "ephemera" in the gallery off to the side. He had turned an electric guitar into a music box, with twelve keys. In no time Elliott Sharp was combining its tinkling alpine melodies with his own brief, intense improvisation. The Whitney's move downtown to a new home by Renzo Piano will leave the old building behind. I will miss the contemporaneity of a great building and a vital museum program.

Was Jackson Pollock just having a temper tantrum? Improvisation, broken vinyl, and ephemera—they all take the gesture of Abstract Expressionism down a notch, and they insist on Marclay's fondness for analog recordings. In the photograms alone, busted cassettes rest on the bottom of the frame, turning the formal space of the picture into an actual shallow volume. It goes back after all to a Minimalist esthetic. Marclay shuns abstraction or symmetry, but this is not unsound art. It will lose something in the iPod version.

For the birds

To see how much more, it helps to recall other recent sound art, like the multichannel sound art of Anri Sala. Remember when quadraphonic promised to surpass the illusion of stereo? In her recreation of an English cathedral, Janet Cardiff does it ten times over. As heard in "Take Two" at MoMA and again in "September 11" at MoMA PS1, she has used forty speakers to convey the experience of a choral work by Thomas Tallis, the Renaissance composer. Celeste Boursier-Mougenot's Harmonichaos (Paula Cooper, 2006)Natalie Jeremijenko asks birds to provide their own sound art, although too much of her exhibition seems distant from the action above—and Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has his own version of classical and natural choirs, but with found materials that Marclay might admire.

Jeremijenko makes art, as her 2006 installation subtitle puts it, "for the birds"—and they provide their own sound art. She outfit a gallery rooftop to "recognize the valuable services they provide for the Manhattan ecosystem," supplying food, waste treatment, and "cultural amenities." As with her later Long Island City visions, her elaborate plans have some fun at the expense of installation art, ecological pieties, urban density, and the old debates over nature and culture, but with honest reverence for all the above. She also laces her humor with a bit too much piety. Will birds share, will they use a weapon against another, will they use the concert hall to perform and amplify their lovely songs, will they self-medicate when given the opportunity, and will they cash in on their 1,000 square-foot West Chelsea garden at market value? Well, I made up the last, but I quoted the rest from the press release.

I stumbled into a continuation at Marclay's very gallery back in 2006. From the entryway, one might mistake the slow, sustained overlays of sound for cicadas at dawn or church music. And then one saw the vacuum cleaners, set out in total disarray—and an unlucky thirteen of them to boot. The hum had me amazed at what household appliances can do with all their hot air, and the objects themselves could mock Minimalism's aspirations to order and cleanliness. In fact, Boursier-Mougenot rigged each one to play a single note on harmonica, although I kept thinking he was actually razzing me thirteen times over. Tim Hawkinson could not make contraptions as ingenious and self-effacing.

Boursier-Mougenot has sounded off on this space before. In his first show at Cooper, he let plates and saucers chime as they floated randomly in plastic, backyard swimming pools. Shortly before, he turned a room at P.S. 1 into a bird house, with wire hangers and whatever else lay at hand. In each case, I noted the openness to chance and change, the use of junk to deflate expectations, and the installations that filled a space without imposing on it. I noted the juxtaposition of a natural or outdoor environment with interior constraints—the freedom to circulate and to find associations. I overlooked how much he relies on sound to transform space.

Forget the space of cathedrals, or at least acknowledge that Cooper's triangular gable more closely resembles vernacular American architecture. Boursier-Mougenot makes one aware that one can reach out, touch, and maybe help clean up the joint, if only one dared. He does not reach across centuries or into eternity, but for what lies in front of one's eyes and ears. He demands a few double-takes, and he has good comic timing. He also allows himself and you to feel pretty silly. Rather than Cardiff on a budget, one might call it the anti-Cardiff—and it helps to show how, with Marclay as well, sound art can use sound to experiment with far more than early music.

Marclay's retrospective ended before his transition from a musician's artist to a star, with viewers lining up for his real-time history of the movies. It spotlights the Whitney's commitment to music and performance, plus its still-adventurous Madison Avenue building. It should get one thinking, in watching Marclay's later video The Clock, of how much dialogue and sound drive film. It is also a healthy reminder of how much music and voices have mattered to both performance and installation. Even photography gets into act, from a marching band on the Fourth of July to the translucent outlines of busted cassettes, but as something more than vision. For Marclay this, too, represents sound, but in silence.

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Christian Marclay ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through September 26, 2010, and at Paula Cooper through August 24, 2010, and before that through October 11, 2008. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot ran at Paula Cooper through October 21, 2006, Natalie Jeremijenko at Postmasters through October 7. A related review in 2011 picks up Marclay with his twenty-four hour real-time video.


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