The Museum of Rhythm

Museum Sztuki, Łódź, Poland

We can find rhythm in everything: a heartbeat, a flower or a churning factory. ‘The Museum of Rhythm’, curated by Natasha Ginwala and Daniel Muzyczuk, placed rhythm as the defining feature of modern life. A pan-historical gambol through art, composition and research, the exhibition expands on the project Ginwala created for the 2012 Taipei Biennial. This wasn’t another woolly ‘music and art’ show – nor an illustration of the ways pattern and pace inform our lives. Rather, it was an attempt to use rhythm to re-read the recent past: revealing history’s seething underbelly, or wiggling backside.

In the first of twelve densely arranged rooms, a seismograph, phonograph, metronome and clock-card machine sat on plinths. These clunky, antique machines set out one aspect of the show: rhythm’s relationship to measurement and recording, regulation and capture. The objects also echo a documentary impulse found elsewhere in the exhibition. Alain Resnais’s Le Chant du Styrène (The Song of Styrene, 1958) was a romantic documentary ode to the factory production of plastics. The recordings of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, beginning with ‘Negro Prison Songs’ (1958) and videos of dances from around the world, surfaced in several rooms. While Resnais’s and Lomax’s documents have a sensory allure, the cylinders that hold voices on the phonograph remind us that they do that through segmentation and isolation. Here’s the paradox pointed to by the ‘Museum of Rhythm’: museums rely on persistent illusions to make things sensible, comprehensible and visible.

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‘The Museum of Rhythm’, exhibition view. Courtesy: Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź; photograph: Piotr Tomczyk

‘The Museum of Rhythm’, exhibition view. Courtesy: Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź; photograph: Piotr Tomczyk

 Several books by late nineteenth century theosophists were included within the show. For these mystical dabblers, rhythm was key to new spiritual vistas, which could be reached by merging patterns of colour, music and choreography. It’s a belief that led to Rudolf Steiner’s eurythmy dance therapy, among others. The exhibition is animated by the same synesthetic impulse, and rhythm’s infectious, analogous proximity to other media. ‘Calligraphy comes from architecture, architecture from harmony,’ states a narrator on a record playing in one room, Music for Words: Lessons and rhythms for typing (1959) released by typewriter company Olivetti. Lining several walls are collaged graphic scores by Gerhard Rühm, an image of charred feet interrupting a musical score in Lasst sie der prufung fruchte sehen (Grant that they bear the trial bravely, 1993), and Samson Young’s drawing series To Fanon (out of the water, out of itself) (2016) that attempt to illustrate sound. Years after the theosophists earlier in the show, Simone Forti’s notes on ‘dancing the news’ show how the urge to merge the senses never left – it just perhaps ditched religious rhetoric.

 In ‘The Museum of Rhythm’, you could bounce from Hans Richter’s solemn rhythm studies on film from the 1920s to the joyous rock percussion of Jean Rouch’s documentary film Batteries Dogon (Dogon Drums, 1966). A series of drawings depicting opium production was contrasted with Ericka Beckman’s short film Tension Building (2014) that makes a raucous animation from the stern weight of stadium architecture. Less essential were a notebook by Hanne Darboven, with its inevitable, obsessive markings, and a drawing by Suzanne Treister, which mapped the history of computer technology – both token inclusions.

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‘The Museum of Rhythm’, exhibition view. Courtesy: Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź; photograph: Piotr Tomczyk

‘The Museum of Rhythm’, exhibition view. Courtesy: Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź; photograph: Piotr Tomczyk

Lesser-known highlights included Åke Hodell’s buzzing soundtracked collages, 220 Volt Buddha (1971), and the stoned and impassioned verses intoned by Los Angeles poets in Barbara McCullough’s documentary Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes (1979). Exoticist urges of anthropological method hung somewhat over the show, turning its potential critique of modernity into a formalised, universalizing museum of set knowledge of the past. Rhythm can’t be contained by the concept of the museum; for any attempt categorise its messy excess, its vibrations spill out. But in forgotten corners and chance connections, parts of ‘The Museum of Rhythm’ elicit that while we might not be able to rewind history, we can shake it off, remix it, and make of it an entirely new rhythm ourselves.

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer who lives in London, UK. His new book of essays, Ha-Ha Crystal (2016), is published by Copy Press.

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