Whitney Museum Presents Christian Marclay

Whitney Museum Presents contemporary artist Christian Marclay in a festival of interdisciplinary audio-visual and performance pieces.
A visitor inscribes a wall of blank musical staves, creating a "score" that performers interpret.

The most beautiful work in the Christian Marclay exhibit at the Whitney is a silent video of a man speaking in sign language. Seen from the waist up against a dark background, his flowing arm and hand gesticulations convey changing tempo and dynamics, augmented and amplified by his dramatic facial expressions. Signing always astonishes and pleases me, as much as some modern dance or music, and this performer, Jonathan Kovacs, is especially talented and riveting.

Watching his graceful, fluid performance I imagined signing as an alternative form of conducting. Phrases were repeated and varied, the mood shifting from light-hearted lyricism to Sturm und Drang. I thought he must be interpreting orchestral music. Could it be Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, something more modern? None of the above. It turns out he is signing excerpts from music critics’ reviews. Critics had rendered their musical impressions in words that in turn were communicated visually by the signer, who memorized the script like an actor or soloist. Marclay calls the 30-minute piece Mixed Reviews (American Sign Language), 1999-2001.

Jonathan Kovacs performing Mixed Reviews (American Sign Language), 1999-2001.

I love this piece because like many excellent performances it inspires thought and wonder, a quality of intellectual and aesthetic engagement I found somewhat lacking in my encounters with many of the other works on view. Not that they aren’t interesting, but most are missing the complexity that can sustain attention and the aesthetic refinement that can reward it. Despite Marclay’s current popularity his works have not yet achieved enduring significance.

Variations on an Audio-Visual Theme

Marclay (b. 1955) dwells in the terrain between sound, instruments, notation, recording, and sight. He was among the first exponents of what is called “turntablism,” the manual manipulation of record players that became commonplace among hip hop DJs. Endlessly varying his musical theme, he alters instruments, stretching an accordion to absurd lengths or a drum set to the height of a room. He recombines fragments of album covers into new and sometimes surreal compositions. He carpets the floor in edge-to-edge LPs, or unreels recording tape into a mound on the floor. “Recording technology has turned music into an object, and a lot of my work is about that object as much as it’s about the music,” he says.

His best known work is Video Quartet, 2005, a multi-channel sampling of snippets from Hollywood movies that the artist edited into a cliché narrative. Much of the enjoyment of that work stems from the nostalgic recognition of familiar actors and scenarios amusingly juxtaposed into a kind of moving-image storyboard.

All of the above-mentioned works were in his 2003-04 Hammer Museum retrospective, but none is in the Whitney exhibit. Organized by curators David Kiehl with Limor Tomer, and superbly installed on the Whitney’s fourth floor, the new show focuses on Marclay’s more recent “scores” for other musicians.

Marclay performing Ghost (I don't live today), recorded at the Kitchen in NYC on March 9, 1985.

A video program looks back to some of his performance pieces from the 1980s and 1990s. Two people take turns reading titles off single-song records to create a broken narrative composed of pop cultural phrases of the “I Really Love You” – “You Never Call” variety. He dangles a turntable from his neck and DJ-style manipulates the disc to make squalling sounds mimicking Jimi Hendrix, who appears in split screen beside him. He appears with a stack of LPs and breaks them one by one against the top of the pile (the punning title is Smash Hits). And he has people scratch and rub record albums and flap them in the air.

For all their cleverness, most of these performances result in so much noise with a backbeat of conceptual play having to do with the production and consumption of music in the age of vinyl. (A recent turntable performance by Marclay can be seen here, followed by an interview with the artist.) Only one rises above the level of conceptual one liner, and that is Les Sortilèges (French for “magic spells”), 1996. A stereo console appears on the floor blasting a festive Latin band. A procession of people enter one by one placing table-cloth-size rectangles of fabric over the stereo. As layers build the sound diminishes until finally it has disappeared, at which point a bedspread and pillow are laid on top, and a performer lies down to go to sleep. The work has metaphorical resonance beyond Marclay’s usual album gags: the music – like energy and life itself — becomes suppressed or internalized, peters out and culminates in sleep or death.

“Scores” Composed of Found Elements

Image from Marclay's digital slide projection, Zoom Zoom, 2007-09.

These early works are a prelude to the bulk of the show which is devoted to the “scores” that Marclay makes by collecting or photographing examples of musical symbols used decoratively or as commercial emblems. He groups them together for musicians to interpret with various electronic instruments. The  found objects range from hand bells to articles of clothing and boxes decorated with musical motifs. He designs screenprints based on collages of sound-effect words torn form comic books – “Aggghh,” “Whoosh,” etc. Susan Tallman memorably titles her essay in the show’s catalogue, “All the World’s a Stave.”

Small groups or individual musicians perform these “scores” daily in the galleries. (Schedule here.) For example, a vocalist responds to a slide show of photographs of detergent cartons, candy wrappers, other products and retail establishments with aural names like Zoom, Whoosh, and Snap! (An excerpt from a 2009 performance in Paris is here.) The performers are free to interpret the scores as they wish, and the resulting sound pieces are dependent solely on the musicians’ training and imaginations.

The most ambitious work in the show is Screen Play, 2005, a moving-image pastiche that strings together found-footage from old movies and news reels onto which Marclay has added brightly colored graphic lines and dots a la John Baldessari. There are some wonderful visual passages: superimposed lines trace the hand movemements of a conductor or form a stave along which a woman does a series of back flips (seen at the end of this clip).

Still from Marclay's Screen Play, 2005.

At times the musical accompaniment provides an ad hoc soundtrack, with rhythmic strumming of a guitar as a locomotive appears on screen, a wah-wah pedaled “boing” as a man bounces on a trampoline, or a turntable-produced crashing sound as a smokestack topples. At other times the sound bears only fleeting relationship to the images.

The audience is challenged to make sense of the aleatoric juxtaposition of sound and image. So much – perhaps too much – depends on the musicians. The absence of order, structure, precision, finesse and coherency generally turns into cacophony. A case in point is Graffiti Composition, 1996-2002. The score consists of blank sheets of music that were posted around Berlin and scribbled on by pedestrians. A painfully loud and unmusical performance at MoMA a couple of years ago made one long for earplugs.

A similar score in the Whitney show consists of visitors’ chalk inscriptions on a long blackboard of musical staves. (See image above.) The other day a pianist interpreted the piece with an improvised medley of styles and songs from Joplin to jazz. This musician was a delight. Like the talented sign-language performer mentioned earlier he was technically brilliant and the result stimulating and affecting. But it is worth noting that Marclay’s score was superfluous; the pianist could have achieved the same results with his eyes closed.

For the Record: Art for the Ages or Variations on Past Masters?

Marclay is entertaining in the inventiveness and thoroughness with which he explores the relationship between recording device, notation, and instrument. His riffs on audio-visual material make one think about the weirdness of structuring and storing sound, and can be enjoyable to contemplate in the way that word games and jokes cause one to pause and smile. Bridging visual art and music he may help to open up new fields of performance. But his work does not strike me as breaking new art historical ground. It trods a field furrowed in the middle of the last century by Dada and Surrealism, Nouveau Realisme, Performance Art and Conceptualism.

His onomatopoeic comic-book prints put an aural spin on torn-poster décollages by Italian artist Mimmo Rotella and others. His collections of objects are like an audio-themed extract from French artist Arman’s accumulations of violins, paint tubes and other items. His graffiti scores deconstruct musical notation as Cy Twombly’s scribbled blackboard paintings leveled human language and formal education. Even his sampling of found footage has precedent in the work of Bruce Conner and others.

And when it comes to questioning musical conventions John Cage said it all. His renowned 4’ 33”, 1952 — the four-minute-and-thirty-three-second composition that instructs the performer to remain silent — threw the task of deriving meaning entirely upon the audience, which was free to listen to ambient sound or to ponder conceptual notions about music, sound, communication and art. He inverted the traditional understanding of music as sound ordered by the artist-composer. Marclay plays productively in the void left by that revolutionary step, but does not take us meaningfully beyond.

“Christian Marclay: Festival” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art until September 26, 2010.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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