The ‘family kit’ that BOZAR handed out during its recent show, ‘It’s Not Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, Baby! A Story of Art and Music’, contained some prescient instructions. The museum’s youngest visitors (aged four and up) were encouraged to use the supplied paper and pens to create their very own rock star alter-egos by coming up with a rock star name, picking an instrument and creating a unique ‘Rockworld’, with prizes awarded for originality and ‘rock attitude’. This prescriptive approach to self-invention also helped forge the likes of Ziggy Stardust and, more recently, the duo Fischerspooner, who featured among the two dozen or so artist–musicians in the show.
A spirit of self-invention connects many of the artists here – after all, artist–musicians are by definition predisposed to ignore traditional categories. The show’s organizers whoop up the way their assembled artists mix materials and genres such as sculpture, drawing, song, collage, installation and video into their own audiovisual language, though the same could be said of contemporary art practice in general these days.
The cozy relationship between music and art has been the focus of many recent shows, prodding BOZAR to steer clear here of art–music dabblers and dilettantes, and focus instead only on artists who treat music and visual art as equals. A case in point is freak-folk favourite Devendra Banhart, a recurring name in many of these recent art–music exhibitions. The weird and whimsical ink drawings he displays here have been compared to those of Paul Klee, though they also resemble more cuddly works by R. Crumb. And as Banhart explains, they could just as easily have become songs: his works start out as simple drawings, and only later become either music or visual art as the situation dictates, with the two forms becoming almost synesthetically interchangeable.
The wall texts announce the show’s participants as legends. While this is certainly true of Yoko Ono, Brian Eno, David Byrne, Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson, it’s less so of, say, Jónsi Birgisson, aka ‘the guy from Sigur Rós’. And weirdly, for a show that so self-consciously wants to rock – the exhibition signage has been spray-painted onto the white walls, all punk-rock-like – there’s not a lot of music here. Only a handful of the works have any sound at all, with the notable exception of the crowded room that screened music videos made by artists such as Damien Hirst (for Blur), Martin Parr (for the Pet Shop Boys) and Doug Aitken (for LCD Soundsystem).
One of the few works that did have audio was Brian Eno’s installation 77 Million Paintings (2007), a kaleidoscopic video wall set amongst trees and beanbags. Software programmed by Eno creates millions of patterns and sounds that play simultaneously, infinitely intersecting and overlapping in ever-changing permutations – an approach that’s much in keeping with the ‘generative music’ he’s been making since the 1990s.
Other works here, though, seem generated more by existing expectations of rockdom than by fancy computers. The Kills’ 400 Polaroids (2002–6) are laid out in a cool orb-like grid, but the pictures themselves reveal little more than generic hotel rooms, stars on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, and the smiling mugs of cool friends like Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes. Pete Doherty’s contribution consists of notebook-like drawings, poems and hangman puzzles, often collaged with scratchy photographs of the artist himself, some splattered with his own blood, others adorned with drug paraphernalia such as needles and spoons. However, the bright and sober photographs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, depicting his band’s touring experiences, largely make good on his stated promise to avoid life-on-the-road clichés.
Fischerspooner provide the show’s highlight with their vibrantly trashy yet intricately choreographed Get Confused (2008), a multi-wall video and music installation built around footage from the rehearsals that led up to the installation itself, turning the piece into a kind of ‘making-of’ without a final product. In 1998, Fischerspooner opted to hold their first-ever gig in a New York branch of Starbucks, later described by Warren Fischer as ‘the crassest possible venue’; ever since the get-go, they’ve striven to span the audience high and low, an approach that has much more in common with pop music than with the rarefied New York art world. But despite a running start, largely fuelled by the British music press, Fischerspooner’s electroclash albums never really found widespread commercial favour, and last year they were unceremoniously dropped by their major record label after nine years in the biz. It seems the special alchemy that lets musicians turn anything they touch into art, and vice versa, is a very scarce thing indeed.
First published in Issue 119