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on, off, into and across the record

jim knox reviews christian marclay: replay at acmi


Christian Marclay, Ghost (I don’t live here Today) Christian Marclay, Ghost (I don’t live here Today)
NEWLY ARRIVED AS A TEENAGE ART STUDENT IN LATE-1970S USA, CHRISTIAN MARCLAY CONDUCTED HIS EARLIEST EXPERIMENTS IN VINYL RECONSTRUCTION AS A CREATIVE RESPONSE TO AN IMMERSIVE MEDIA ENVIRONMENT. THE UBIQUITY OF VINYL LPS FOUND ITS COROLLARY IN A TRASHCAN CORNUCOPIA OF DISCARDED RECORDS: THE EBONY ELLINGPHANT’S GRAVEYARD. THESE WERE THE RUINS UPON WHICH THE YOUNG MARCLAY PLAYED, COLLAGING VINYL FRAGMENTS INTO RECOMBINANT RECORDS WHICH, WHEN PAIRED TO A RECORD PLAYER, ALSO SUGGESTED THE POSSIBILITY OF PERFORMANCE.

Rather than proceeding from legitimated precedents in primitive musique concrete, or the Broken Music of Flux-artist, Milan Knizak, Marclay had intuitively arrived at a pataphysical response to the problem of music which both paralleled contemporary experiments in hip hop and dramatised cultural and economic theories about the consumer as producer. Turntablism would not become the defining term for music made from the mixing and manipulation of records until 1994. Marclay was the field’s unwitting, if recalcitrantly unfunky, pioneer.

From the outset, Marclay’s musical activities have been informed by the conceptual smarts of his fine art schooling; his early duo with fellow student, Kurt Henry, homaged Duchamp with its name, The Bachelors, Even. Marclay’s recombinant records function as sophisticated sculptures (they look like pizzas composed of different flavoured slices) and, despite a career which has seen him work alongside such celebrated composer/improvisers as Sonic Youth, John Zorn and Otomo Yoshihide, it is as a visual artist that Christian Marclay has enjoyed his greatest success.

Marclay’s work explores a special variety of synaesthesia in which notional correspondences between sound and image are embodied in material artefacts. The sounds of these objects are often latent, suggested rather than heard, like his framed photograph of the Simon & Garfunkel 45, The Sounds of Silence. His installations and sculptures pursue this research into a materiality of sound, subjecting musical instruments to absurd exaggerations (a supine accordion with a seven metre bellows), or perverting domestic media into ironic comments on the familiar comforts they provide (a pillow crocheted from tape recordings of that boresome foursome, The Beatles).

Within Australia, Marclay’s work has figured in both the 1990 Sydney Biennale and the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2001 exhibition, Art>Music: Rock, Pop, Techno with his Broken Music. Internationally, he’s shown at the Tate Modern and the Pompidou, the Walker Art Centre, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, the Venice Biennale (twice), and the list goes on...So a survey of his videowork should, perhaps, aptly be the subject of the ACMI screen gallery’s first solo artist focus.

ACMI’s Replay exhibition largely neglects this conceptual thread of Marclay’s career, and is less convincing for doing so. Instead, the audience is proposed a much more elementary discourse: sound-image relationships. Many of the works on display are essentially performance documentation, which an actual performance by Marclay—who was present for the exhibition opening—might have made redundant. Others apply a form of montage to footage from Hollywood features; but their elementary cataloguing of ‘universal’ forms and situations merely echoes the monocultural conceit of classic US studio filmmaking. What I personally find disturbing is that by privileging the logic of musical structure over the possibilities of dramatic narrative, Marclay seems also to have borrowed classic Hollywood’s claim to a blithe ideological neutrality (records are synthesised from which particular natural resource?).

The strongest works are those created from original footage. Deaf actor, Jonathan Hall Kovacs, translates music criticism into sign language with a dancer’s grace in Mixed Reviews (Sign Language). The dramatic sweep of his arms suggests an overwrought conductor, and his resort to wild-eyed mugging for dramatic emphasis lends the work a slapstick charm. Despite some gestural Sturm und Drang, its a moment of rare, silent, elegance within the Marclay oeuvre, and a witty quaternary retort to the tertiary function of the reviews (after the secondary, performance, and the primary, the score). I’m not clear what the original reviews were of, though I suppose the fact that Marclay collects music criticism is consistent with the general sense of surfeit that obtains in his work.

Another anomaly is Guitar Drag which features verité footage of the eponymous performance as a Fender Stratocaster is drawn by a rope through a variety of rural landscapes. Still plugged into an amp on the back of the speeding pick-up truck, the guitar’s demise provides a diegetic soundtrack. In counterpoint to this wry echo of the Fluxus movement’s destructive phase, the textural complexity of the music and the autumnal landscapes invite meditative contemplation in the auditor. This video’s power is only heightened by the knowledge that it explicitly refers to the 1998 automotive lynching of James Byrd Junior: for all its complex referentiality, this is a hauntingly eloquent work.

Three further works serve to illustrate the wealth of sound-producing techniques that the vinyl LP has afforded Marclay. Ghost (I Don’t Live Here Today) demonstrates his phonoguitar (essentially, a shoulder-strung turntable) and his performative gestures mimic the histrionics of rock guitar virtuosity. Record Players finds an ensemble scuffing their fingernails over LP grooves, before shattering the albums with cheerful abandon. Gestures is for four adjacent screens (a form Marclay will employ again) and brings the artist’s technical inventions into cacophonous, simultaneous, proximity. Each of the screens offers a close shot of a turntable, and Marclay tests the sonic and physical limits of the vinyl long-player; styli loop in locked grooves, and the off-centre spindle lends itself to loping pitch shifts. A little scratch never hurt anyone...

Marclay’s found footage works describe the imperial culture of US studio cinema in all its naked banality. In itself, that might be a rather artful reduction, although I doubt it was intentional: the problem is simply that Marclay has much less facility with the technology of moving image media than he does with a turntable. With the exception of Up and Out, the soundtrack is always diegetic—what you see is what you hear. In Telephone, Marclay compiles screen telephone conversations, but the effect is simply of a crossed-line conference call: what is most striking are the lost opportunities to reinvest these clips with new meaning through their canny adjacency. Bruce Conner did so much more with found footage half a century ago, and US television offers an accomplished guide in the form of Jay Ward’s Fractured Flickers series (1963).

Crossfire is an immersive environment which places the viewer at the centre of a cubic fusillade, with shots fired from action cinema clips rear-projected at each opposing wall. Sonically, as an exploration of genre clichés, and as an engagement with cinema’s materiality, it pales in comparison with Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), which has a very different, explicitly metaphysical, intention. Crossfire is also diminished by the absence of the work that accompanied its original viewing at London’s White Cube gallery: a collection of verbal sound effects rudely torn from the pages of comic books, lurid onomatopoeia becoming the mute stand-in for an extravagant concrete poetry.

This question of context is an important one. In hosting this initial survey of Marclay’s videowork, originally curated by Emma Lavigne for Paris’ Cite de la Musique, ACMI lost an opportunity to acknowledge a rich tradition of Australian artists working in detourned media. In spite of its allusivity and conceptual sophistication, Marclay’s work begins from benign assumptions about media saturation. Australian artists engaged with the materiality of found media have produced a rich and intelligent body of work which forcefully contests that assumption. I’m thinking expressly of Lynsey Martin’s experimental films—some of the most extraordinary cinema ever made in this country, and still largely unknown—but also of the turntablist interventions of Marco Fusinato, and Phil Samartzis’ 1980s duo with Andrew Curtis, GUM. With its resort to so many imported exhibitions and film programs, rather than promoting Australian work internationally, ACMI’s curatorial policy is in danger of being characterised as another kind of Terra Nullius.


Christian Marclay: Replay, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Nov 15-Feb 3

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 49

© Jim Knox; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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