BY Philip Sherburne in Features | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

Close to the edit

Christian Marclay

BY Philip Sherburne in Features | 10 SEP 03

Years ago, after a long Valentine's Day weekend spent rekindling an old flame in San Francisco, before returning to the East Coast I presented my lover with what seemed an appropriate gift: a record cover from Tony Bennett's album I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1962), cut and reassembled into a Valentine's collage carefully straddling the line between affection and hipsterly affectation.

I still recall, however, the anxiety I felt when the time finally came to put knife to cardboard: as a lifelong record collector, the act of destruction, even to creative ends, seemed profoundly unnatural. No matter that the object in question was one out of surely millions of copies in existence, purchased for a few dollars and easily replaceable - for a record collector, someone who curses when a thrift-store find has been marked up in ballpoint pen by its former owner, this was something you simply didn't do. I flinched a bit when the blade took its first bite.

Christian Marclay is not hampered by such fetishistic scruples. Indeed, his work would be impossible if he were. Since the early 1980s the Swiss-American artist has attacked recorded musical objects with the diligence of an evangelist burning Heavy Metal records - cutting, melting, grafting, painting and otherwise manipulating vinyl discs and their cardboard sleeves into clever, surprising assemblages. Not limited to the world of black plastic and glossy card stock, however, Marclay's work also includes solo and ensemble turntable performance, sculptures made of musical instruments and playback devices, and carefully edited audio/video pieces culled from familiar sources; it is a body of work that touches on ready-mades, Appropriation art, sampling and Plunderphonics, as well as deadpan Conceptualism. A 'sound artist' in the broadest sense of the term, despite the fact that much of his work has no audible component outside the running soundtrack in his viewers' heads, Marclay investigates the material culture of popular music and explores the way that the public and private spheres collide in the creation of a musica practica - a social practice of music as it is lived in everyday life.

The exhibition 'Christian Marclay', curated by Russell Ferguson and first shown by UCLA's Hammer Museum, collects a broad range of Marclay's work over more than 20 years, including early experiments in cut and reassembled vinyl ('Recycled Records', 1980-86), collaged record covers ('Imaginary Records' and 'Body Mix' series, 1988-92), the Tape Fall installation (1989) and the recent video works Guitar Drag (2000) and Video Quartet (2002). While a number of the works will be familiar to many viewers, the chance to see them together in one place - sculptures in conversation with collaged vinyl, audio-visual works shadowing petrified scraps of musical history - highlights certain frequencies that, singularly, remain buried in the grooves of Marclay's oeuvre.

Many critics, including Ferguson and the University of California's Miwon Kwon, both of whom contribute essays to the show's catalogue, have pointed out Marclay's debt to Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, in the late 1970s Marclay founded a Punk performance duo whose name, The Bachelors, Even, was culled from Duchamp's famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). Many pieces in the exhibition bear out these comparisons: Lip Lock (2000), for instance, which marries a tuba and a pocket trumpet at the mouthpieces, creating a closed object that precludes the performer, exists with minimal artistic craft or labour. But in bringing together many of the pieces that it does, the exhibition points out another aesthetic tradition just as powerfully seated in Marclay's practice: typology.

While often used by photographers to more straightforward documentary ends, from 19th-century archivists to Bernd and Hilla Becher, Marclay's typologies expose unconscious tendencies in the culture of popular music that reach across decades. Some of his compositions, precursors of the 'database art' of practitioners such as Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, seem to reveal formal patterns so common that they might express some kind of natural law. Large Circle (1992), for instance, arranges 23 overlapping album covers in a perfect circle. The selected covers all contain closely cropped head shots of performers, and the arrangement leaves only the mouth of each visible, in an infinite chain of lips and teeth. As ingenious as the arrangement is, it's also remarkably simple; many viewers may be reminded of commonplace convergences such as the weeks-apart releases last year of Beck's Sea Change and Rhett Miller's The Instigator, which featured their respective singers' faces shot with almost identical lighting, in both cases emphasizing supple lips and lanky hair. (They'd make perfect candidates for a Large Circle II.)

The record cover is the perfect material for an investigation of typology, of course. Album sleeves, like all mass culture products, express the desires and fears of the society begetting them - concisely configured in a 12 by 12 inch square. Marclay's profoundly simple interventions, especially those in the 'Body Mix' series, uncover uncanny hidden meanings that explode when even the most ordinary album images are combined. Footstompin (1991), for instance, overlaps Michael Jackson's iconic Thriller (1983) cover with two sleeves - one probably dating from the 1970s, the other from the early 1960s - showing women's legs. From these three a single, multiracial, hermaphroditic figure is born, as Jackson's torso connects perfectly to the belly, crotch and thighs of a black woman stripped to her underwear; her left leg trails off into the white woman's knee and calf in the final frame. Given Jackson's infamous racial and sexual ambiguities, what's most striking is not necessarily the joke, but rather the proportion-perfect way in which the images combine; the piece's success lies in the collision between its seams and its seamlessness. (If any single conceit sums up Marclay's work, it is probably the seam, most pointedly explored in 1980-86 in 'Recycled Records', cut-and-glued assemblages of records in which the turntable needle uncomfortably traverses from groove to grafted groove.) Guitar Neck (1992) offers a similar conjunction of images, this time joining covers depicting guitar necks (including two in which women seem to be pressing their faces against it in worship) to underscore its phallic iconicity.

Even here, though, what might seem a stale one-liner - we know, we know, guitars are like dicks - finds unlikely resonances in other artefacts of popular culture: it's difficult to see Guitar Neck without thinking of Jean Paul Goude's cover for Grace Jones' Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which deftly sliced and taped Jones' portrait into a bizarrely extended (and, yes, phallic) accentuation of her mouth and Afro. Marclay's work is deeply indebted to these kind of unconscious, unspoken associations, whether intentional or not. In The Beatles (1989) this forms the very basis of the piece: the group's collected works have been recorded to quarter-inch audio tape which Marclay has crocheted into a pillow, underscoring not only the comfort so many millions of people find in this most familiar of bands, but also the almost osmotic way we all absorb their cultural resonances.

Typology and repetition also play out in Maclay's video works, as in Telephones (1995), edited together from film clips featuring actors speaking on the telephone, unearthing a kind of perpetual conversation made senseless by its ubiquty, or Video Quartet (2002), which collages together musical passages from hundreds of Hollywood films to create a wildly dynamic archive in cacophonous simultaneity.

The flipside of all this is that part of Marclay's work in which the needle brushes up against the sublime. The recent sculptures Drumkit (1999), Virtuoso (2000) and Lip Lock (2000), shown together in a single installation here, turn everyday musical artefacts into monstrous, elephantized oddities: Drumkit begins normally enough, with a kick-drum sitting on the floor, but ascends dizzyingly, raising four toms and three cymbals in a spiral that reaches 15 feet tall, playable only by a drummer whose stepladder skills are as polished as his or her stick-work. Virtuoso, a 25-foot long accordion, mocks would-be performers even as it suggests, tantalizingly, the centuries-long evolution of virtuosity.

More sublime still, however, is Marclay's video Guitar Drag (2000), in which an amplified Fender guitar is dragged from a rope by a pick-up truck as it careers through Texas country roads. While the 15-minute video references instrument destroyers such as Nam June Paik and Jimi Hendrix, more chilling is the implicit reference to James Byrd, who was lynched by truck-dragging in Texas in 1998. In this context the quarter-hour of squeals and feedback, culminating in the destruction of the guitar, is one of the most disturbing pieces in Marclay's oeuvre, blowing past Rock and Roll's famed crossroads to stare down the devil himself.