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Christian Marclay

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA

Christian Marclay's installation Tape Fall (1989) is a grower. Not just in the sense that it takes a while for the work's impact to sink in - although it's certainly true that, unlike many apparent one-liners, Tape Fall keeps suggesting interpretations with repeated interaction. No, the installation quite literally grows, slowly but surely, and each visit presents a new version of the art work. Startlingly simple, the piece consists of a reel-to-reel tape player perched high atop an industrial stepladder; magnetic tape plays back a recording of dripping water and, in the absence of a take-up reel, falls the 20 or so feet to the gallery floor, where it accumulates in a messy pile. When the tape runs out a new one is loaded into the machine, and the debris beneath is left in place. Despite the tangle around the base of the ladder, a subtle order prevails: positioned to fall directly on top of a horizontal metal bar, the slowly spilling tape gradually flips and flops over the rod, creating a symmetrical mound as it amasses, ever so slowly. Returning to the gallery is a bit like making repeat visits to Pride Superette, a convenience store only a mile or so from San Francisco MOMA, where the owner, Nabil Kishek, is in the slow process of assembling a ball of rubber bands worthy of the Guinness Book of Records. Despite the gentle pace of both projects, experiencing the mutation at first hand never fails to delight, resulting in an odd collision of simple surprise and Sisyphean sublimity.

Of course, Tape Fall is more than merely a dynamic sculpture. A visual pun on Alvin Lucier's classic tape composition I Am Sitting in a Room perhaps, its spatial nature tends to overshadow the degree to which it is a sound work concerned with questions of perception, process, time and decay. But sound is of key importance to the Swiss artist Marclay, who is known for his collaborations with Sonic Youth and the Kronos Quartet, as well as art works such as Record without a Cover (1985), an LP sold without any sleeve at all, designed to accumulate scuffs and scratches - the bane of vinyl fetishists everywhere.

In the other two pieces in the exhibition Marclay explores the correlation between sound and the moving image, to radically different effects. In Up & Out (1998) he has married the visual footage from Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) to the soundtrack from Brian De Palma's homage to that film, Blow Out (1981). At first the project feels a bit like an exercise in perversity under the guise of Cagean principles, but the pairing is far from arbitrary: where Blow-Up is concerned with the interpretation of visual evidence, Blow Out uses the crime scene investigation as a means of exploring the rift between sound and vision. But as the brain attempts to reconcile the discontinuity of the two sets of data - and jumps at the inevitable, chance convergences of sound and image - something curious happens. The logic of montage is denaturalized, collapsing into so many disconnected images, while the soundtrack - generally considered the secondary agent - becomes the driver, the unifying force. Up & Out challenges the oft-proclaimed ocular-centrism of contemporary culture.

Where Up & Out concerns itself with minor fortuities, Video Quartet (2002), a new piece commissioned by San Francisco MOMA and the Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg, is a much more ambitious approach to the intertwining of sound and vision. The 14-minute piece consists of four parallel audio-video channels, each one a montage of hundreds of musical scenes from classic Hollywood films, fused together into a dense and bewildering mix. The edits, ranging from a millisecond to half a minute in duration, pack in a dazzling array of sources: Michael J. Fox rocking in Back to the Future (1985), the banjo-playing hick in Deliverance (1972), Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965), Marilyn Monroe taunting suitors, Elvis crooning in uniform, an anonymous turntablist, dozens of pairs of pianists' hands, horn players' hands, drummers' hands; Darryl Hannah stroking a cello; the Marx brothers marching through a living room; Liza Minnelli screaming blue murder; Janet Leigh screaming bluer murder. Even noise becomes musical: gunshots, slamming doors, screeching tyres, breaking plates, a car plunging off a bridge into the water. At times images are repeated, juggled between screens, braided and unravelled. It's all knit together with the musicality of a DJ Shadow or a John Oswald composition, and while the blur of visuals and signifiers - references from Psycho (1960), Poltergeist (1982), The Toxic Avenger (1985), Woodstock (1970) and Barbarella (1968) all compete for attention - seems at first to lack any kind of underlying structure, repeat viewings reveal the primacy of the soundtrack. An impressively talented DJ and remixer, Marclay has followed his ear and his intuition and created a seamless sonic flow from all these filmic scraps. As a stand-alone album, this could have been a remarkable work of plunderphonics, but in its final form Video Quartet is a thrilling, engrossing sensory overload. Hip-Hop theorists make much of turntablism's temporal ruptures, but Marclay has produced something even more radical. At its simplest level, the piece reveals a simple, celebratory joy in music, film and culture; but as it constantly flits between levels, from pure sensation to mediated signifier, from moment to moment and note to note, it wreaks havoc with perception, memory and interpretation. Video Quartet renders the waveform as maze, the image as a trickster's map that only leads you deeper into the whorl.

Issue 70

First published in Issue 70

October 2002
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