BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Reviews | 16 MAR 17
Featured in
Issue 187

The Museum of Rhythm

Museum Sztuki, Łódź, Poland

BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Reviews | 16 MAR 17

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, sites 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 reread the recent past: revealing history’s seething underbelly, or wiggling backside.

In the first of 12 densely arranged rooms, a seismograph, phonograph, metronome and clock-card machine sit on plinths. These clunky, antique devices 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) is 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, surfaces 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.

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

Several books by late-19th-century theosophists are 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 can bounce from Hans Richter’s solemn rhythm studies on film from the 1920s to the joyous rock percussion of Jean Rouch’s documentary Batteries Dogon (Dogon Drums, 1966). A series of drawings depicting opium production is installed to contrast with Ericka Beckman’s short film Tension Building (2014), which makes a raucous animation from the stern weight of stadium architecture. Less essential is a notebook by Hanne Darboven, with its inevitable, obsessive markings, and a drawing by Suzanne Treister, which maps the history of computer technology – both seemingly token inclusions. 

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

The show’s lesser-known highlights include Åke Hodell’s buzzing soundtracked collages, 220 Volt Buddha (1971) as well as 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 hang somewhat over the show, turning its potential critique of modernity into a formalized, universalising museum of set knowledge of the past. Rhythm can’t be contained by the concept of the museum; regardless of attempts to categorize 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 and critic who lives in London, UK.