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Issue 49 November-December 1999 RSS

Rodney Graham

Kunsthalle, Vienna, Austria

Heavy guitars and a tune with hit potential - these are the keys to ‘Creatures’, a song by Rodney Graham. The Canadian artist first presented it last year in Cologne, along with some photographs he had taken in Aberdeen, a small town in the US state of Washington where Kurt Cobain grew up. Although the work attempted to say something about urban hopelessness, his song has nothing of the rawness that made Cobain’s songs such a sign of the mood of their times. In this sense, his work is important in discussions about crossovers between different genres, and about bridging the gap between contemporary art and pop culture. Which is probably why the Kunsthalle in Vienna is showing an exhibition of Graham’s recent work under the laconic title ‘Cinema Music Video’.

Central to the exhibition, which was restricted to a few works, was The King’s Part (1999). A ceiling-high cube covered with metal sheets, it was entered via a mobile gangway. Once inside, behind a heavy steel door, the interior, lined with grey felt, created an amazingly quiet environment and gradually revealed a sound of clattering and clicking. Although at first it sounded unstructured, further listening revealed it to be a carefully considered composition for a percussion instrument: a recording of the sound of keys on a flute being pressed during a silent rendition of the flute part for a concerto composed by Frederick II that - as is seen in Adolph Menzel’s famous painting Das Flötenkonzert (The Flute Concert) (1850-52) - he himself liked to perform, as soloist with a little orchestra.

Michael Glasmeier begins his catalogue essay by drawing a parallel between the architectural reduction of the cube and a composition reduced to a mechanical noise. What you can hear - the clicking of the flute’s keys - is the sound technicians usually try to avoid during recordings. Apart from the fact that the mechanical noise of the instrument has a musical charm of its own, Graham was also concerned with creating a counter-image. Frederick II could be perceived as a kind of ideal ruler, who won battles and made music, who was prepared to listen to contemporary philosophical and social debates. In Graham’s isolation cell we can hear the king endlessly practising, (a rather un-royal activity), while drawing our attention to the mediocrity of Frederick’s statesmanship and skill in the arts of war and composition that have become overtaken by his myth. The apparently artificial sound of the flute keys could be read as the metaphorical creaking of the beams in the Prussian state.

Martin Pesch

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First published in
Issue 49, November-December 1999

by Martin Pesch

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