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July 5, 2002

++ Christian Marclay's Audio-Visual Moebius Strip

++ Christian Marclay's installation Tape Fall (1989) is a grower. Not just in the sense that it takes a while for the work's impact to sink in — although it's certainly true that, unlike many white-cube one-liners, Tape Fall keeps suggesting interpretations with repeated interaction.

No, the installation quite literally grows, slowly but surely, and each visit presents a new version of the artwork. Startlingly simple, the piece consists of a reel-to-reel tape player perched high atop an industrial stepladder. Magnetic tape running through the machine plays back a recording of dripping water and, in the absence of a take-up reel, falls the 20 or so feet to the gallery floor, where it accumulates in a messy pile. When the tape runs out, every two hours, a new one is loaded onto the machine, and the debris beneath is left in place. Despite the tangle around the base of the ladder, a subtle order prevails: positioned to fall directly atop a horizontal metal bar, the slowly spilling tape gradually flips and flops over the rod, creating a symmetrical mound as it amasses.

When I first visited the exhibit, on its opening day, the tape drooped in a meager pool, but by only a month later there was a mound three or four feet high, shaped, curiously enough, in the eggplant sag of Mush-Mouth's ski-cap. Returning to the gallery is a bit like making repeat visits to Pride Superette, a convenience store only a mile or so from SFMOMA, where the owner, Nabil Kishek, is in the slow process of assembling a Guinness Book-worthy ball of rubber bands. Despite the routine and creeping pace of both projects, experiencing the mutation firsthand never fails to delight, effecting an odd collision of simple surprise and Sisyphean sublimity.

Of course, Tape Fall is more than merely a dynamic sculpture. It might be thought of as a visual pun on Alvin Lucier's classic tape composition "I Am Sitting in a Room," perhaps. In that piece, Lucier overdubs a self-referential spoken text (describing the act of reading and overdubbing) until the resonant frequencies of the room absorb the amassed copies, transforming them into an undifferentiated harmonic blur. But the spatial nature of Marclay's installation tends to overshadow the degree to which it is a sound work concerned with questions of perception, process, time and decay.

Sound is of key importance to the Swiss artist Marclay, who is known for collaborations with Sonic Youth and Kronos Quartet, as well as artworks like Record Without a Cover (1985), an LP sold without any sleeve at all, designed to accumulate scuffs and scratches — the bane of vinyl fetishists everywhere. Or Footsteps (1989), in which a gallery floor was covered with unsleeved records. After the exhibit ended, Marclay took up the scuffed and stomped-upon discs, repackaged them, and sold them as individual objects.

++ In the exhibit's other two pieces, Marclay explores the correlation between sound and the moving image, to radically different effects. In Up & Out (1998), Marclay has married the visual footage from Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) to the soundtrack from Brian De Palma's homage to that film, Blow Out (1981). At first, the project feels a bit like an exercise in perversity under the guise of Cagean principles, but the pairing is far from arbitrary. Where Blow-Up is concerned with the interpretation of visual evidence, Blow Out uses the crime scene investigation as a means of exploring the rift between sound and vision.

As the opening credits to the Antonioni film begin to roll, and the soundtrack to De Palma's film launches into a blindfolded plot, a kind of anxious, anticipatory tedium sets in: I'm going to have to sit through two whole hours of this? But you're soon pulled into it, lured by the odd synchronicities — a door slamming at the same time as a like sound jumps out of the speakers, or a shift from interior to exterior on both soundtrack and visible scene. As the brain attempts to reconcile the discontinuity of the two data sets, teased by the chance convergences and frustrated by the inscrutable incompatibilities, something curious happens. The logic of montage is denaturalized, collapsing into so many disconnected images, while the soundtrack, generally considered the secondary agent, becomes the driver, the unifying force. Up & Out challenges the oft-proclaimed reign of the visual in contemporary culture.

One of the (surely unintended) discoveries Marclay's fusion makes is that the synchronizations seem to accelerate as both films climb toward their climaxes. It is almost as though there were some inexorable law dictating the flow of a Hollywood film. Just as, in the 19th century, photographs of criminals were superimposed in the effort to determine the ideal physiological type of the likely recidivist (the same technique was used even more notoriously in the racist attempt to define and typify Jewish facial features), one imagines thousands of Hollywood films superimposed after Marclay's fashion, piling sound onto image onto sound onto image, all blurring together into a lone arc charting the unconscious logic of Hollywood cinema.

++ Where Up & Out concerns itself with minor fortuities, Video Quartet (2002), a new piece commissioned by SFMOMA and the Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg, is a much more ambitious approach to the intertwining of sound and vision. The 14-minute piece consists of four parallel audio-video channels, each one a montage of hundreds of musical scenes from classic Hollywood films, fused together into a dense and bewildering audiovisual mix. (Man, I'd hate to see the bill from his corner video store.)

The edits, ranging from a millisecond to half a minute long, pack in a dazzling array of sources: Michael J. Fox rocking in Back to the Future, the guitar-playing hick in Deliverance, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, Marilyn Monroe taunting suitors, Elvis crooning in uniform, an anonymous turntablist, dozens of pairs of pianists' hands, horn players' hands, drummers' hands. Daryl Hannah strokes a cello. The Marx brothers march through a living room. Liza Minelli screams bloody murder. Janet Leigh screams bloodier murder. Even noise becomes musical: gunshots, slamming doors, screeching tires, breaking plates, a sedan plunging off a bridge into the water. At times images are repeated, juggled between screens, braided and unraveled.

In the film's most startling moment, the four screens synch up in a succession of circles: a roulette wheel spins, two tympani are struck, a ride cymbal flies through the air, while a lone tap-dancer traces a perfect circle with one foot around the other. It's all knit together with the musicality of a DJ Shadow or John Oswald composition, and while the blur of visuals and signifiers — references from Psycho, Poltergeist, The Toxic Avenger,Woodstock, West Side Story, Barbarella and so many more all compete for attention — at first seems to lack any kind of underlying structure, repeat experiences reveal the primacy of the soundtrack.

Even in the most carefully visually scripted moments, Video Quartet is first and foremost a musical work. Or perhaps sound and image do have equal weight — imagine the form as a Moebius strip, with sound on one side and image on the other, chasing each other in a twisted circle, inseparable. But the very fact that the visual doesn't drive the sound is, again, a bold gesture, in a culture where sound is assumed always to supply the background ambiance.

An impressively talented DJ and remixer, Marclay has followed his ear and his intuition and created a seamless sonic flow from all these filmic scraps. As a standalone album, this could have been a remarkable work of plunderphonics, but in its final form, Video Quartet is a thrilling, engrossing sensory overload. Hip-hop theorists make much of turntablism's temporal ruptures, but Marclay's effected something even more radical. At its simplest level, the piece reveals a simple, celebratory joy in music, film, and culture; but as it constantly flits between levels, from pure sensation to mediated signifier, from moment to moment and note to note, it wreaks havoc with perception, memory, and interpretation. Video Quartet renders the waveform as maze, and the image as a trickster's map that leads you ever deeper into the whorl.

Sampling/Christian Marclay is on view at SFMOMA through July 28.


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