THUD! THUD! THUD! THUD! You could hear and feel the show pounding through the floor before you reached The Kitchen’s upstairs gallery where ‘Metal’ – Danh Vō’s collaborative performance-cum-exhibition with the band Xiu Xiu (Jamie Stewart, with Shayna Dunkelman and Ches Smith) – was taking place. Loud, intensely physical and entrancing to both eye and ear, it folded uncomfortable questions about labour, collaboration and identity into a musical performance that channelled the ghosts of New York’s avant-garde downtown scenes.
The metronomic thudding came from Nantapol and Pruan Panicharam, two Bangkok-based, father and son gold-beaters who produce gold leaf for Vō’s sculptural work. They were positioned on a wooden scaffold to the left of the gallery entrance, away from the centre of the room. The pair faced each other on seats harnessed to their rig by rope. In front of them were two blocks resting on stone bases. Using hammers, the Panicharams alternately pounded each of the blocks in front of them, creating a remarkably steady and heavy-duty rhythm. Inside the blocks (which, when they occasionally paused to make adjustments, looked like small books that could be opened up) were nuggets of 24-carat gold being beaten into sheets of gold leaf. Creating the leaf took three hours, from noon until 3pm, each day for the three-week duration of the exhibition. This dictated the length of Xiu Xiu’s performance, and provided a rhythmic pulse for a continuous series of musical vignettes that the band performed across the three hours, each one ending after five minutes with the sounding of a short alarm.
Xiu Xiu commanded the centre of the room with a battery of percussion instruments, comprised of marimbas, vibraphones, bells, gongs and cymbals of many sizes and shapes. Some of the pieces – all performed in time with the gold pounding – followed conventional musical scores, others were instruction-based or involved improvisatory, chance elements. As the performance unfolded, the pieces appeared to devolve from contrapuntal and tonal compositions for the marimbas and vibraphones to increasingly aggressive thwacking of cymbals and banging of gongs, ending with the band members taking apart their rig and throwing the metalwork around the room (occasionally flying alarmingly close to visitors). Perhaps prompted in part by The Kitchen’s storied relationship to the New York downtown music scenes of the 1970s and ’80s, trace elements could be heard in Xiu Xiu’s compositions of John Cage and Fluxus-influenced musicians using games and chance, of Minimalists like Steve Reich (who worked extensively with mallet instruments), and of drum-centric No Wave bands such as Gray, Ike Yard and the West Coast percussionist Z’EV. (The band’s instrumentation also brought to my mind the idea of industrial music; not just the abrasive 1980s music genre, but the very idea of music-making as a form of industry.)
Across the walls of the gallery were painted lines from songs by Nico, Rihanna and others, along with quotes from Antonin Artaud and Leo Bersani, all rendered in beautiful calligraphic script by Vō’s father, who does not write or read English. (He memorized the quotes as shapes.) Amongst these were framed pages torn from a book on Michelangelo’s sculpture. Here, ‘Metal’ lost a little focus; the quotes didn’t much illuminate the performance, and the Michelangelo pages could have been from another exhibition entirely. And whilst the combination of Xiu Xiu with the Panicharams beating gold was memorably strong as music and spectacle, the structure of the show threw up questions about the hierarchy of collaboration. Xiu Xiu and Vō were credited as the ‘headline artists’ for the show, whereas the Panicharams and Vō’s father were mentioned only in the literature handed out at the gallery desk. (If I were going to pound gold solidly for three hours a day for the entertainment of New York gallery audiences whilst simultaneously providing the rhythmic backbone to an experimental musical performance, I’d want a little more credit.) The physical layout of the performance – with the Thai gold-beaters set to one side and the US musicians in the centre of the room – said something about this, too, although I’m not sure entirely what. Perhaps it was a practical issue to do with sound design or cymbals being flung through the air, although knowing Vō’s interest in questions of national identity, migration and cultural perspectives, a generous reading might ascribe it to a deliberate gesture on the artist’s part.
If Vō was trying to draw a parallel between the physical labour needed to beat out a precious metal commodity and the physical labour of beating out something else precious – music – then he drew a complicated and thought-provoking one. Contrasting national backgrounds, different economies of exchange, hierarchies of value; these issues resonate deeply.