An Art of Time
A curious light is shed on Ferrer's art by learning that as a young man he was as deeply involved in music as in painting and sculpture, playing drums professionally in Latin bands until 1966. One of the exhibition's thematic sections is devoted to representations of music and musicians, making it clear that his fascination with music never abated. The relation between music and the other arts was one of the great themes of Modernism; in the European tradition, where the musical reference was always to the great tradition of classical concert music, this usually pointed toward the possibility of abstraction. Just as a string quartet needs no literary program, neither does a painting. For Ferrer, the implications are different because the music he has in mind comes from a different tradition. "My instrument is the drum," he explained in 1971. "It minimizes all the other assets that music has, like harmony and tone, and concentrates on the fundamental point of time and the ability to split time in ways that are intricate and inventive, and to do that under pressure, which comes from the fact that musical decisions are made at a high rate of speed—they are literally split-second decisions. So they require intuition and the ability to take chances within a structure which has time as a critical element." Ferrer's understanding of the significance of music is hardly opposed to its potential for abstractness, but neither is that the main point. Instead, Ferrer calls for an aesthetic of spontaneous responsiveness irrespective of subject (or lack thereof)—an aesthetic just as applicable to the figurative painting he would take up a decade later and the seemingly abstract yet symbolically resonant installations he was making at the time. For that matter, his most inventive and intricate elaborations of the structure of time will undoubtedly turn out to have been his paintings. It's a pleasure to see them again after so long.
Ferrer's quasi manifesto for music as the fundamental aesthetic is worth keeping in mind when visiting "Christian Marclay: Festival," at the Whitney (through September 26). The Swiss-American artist, born in 1955, might seem to have very little in common with his Puerto Rican elder, yet Marclay is just as insistent as Ferrer that music, as an art of time, can be a model for visual art—if anything, he is even more so. Unlike Ferrer, Marclay has no musical training. But as an art student in Boston in 1979, inspired like many of his generation by punk rock, which "had freed people from the idea that you had to be skilled to play music," he began performing, or as he puts it, "inventing ways to make music when not a musician." Since he couldn't play an instrument, he began working with musical ready-mades, using vinyl records and turntables as instruments, not unlike the breakbeat DJs who'd started working with the same equipment to revolutionary effect in the Bronx just a few years before, albeit to very different effect. Soon he started treating his records as sculptural material, cutting them up and recombining the pieces to create visual collages that were also bearers of sound collages.
By now, Marclay has become something of a virtuoso of the turntable; the correlate of the punk notion that you don't need to be skilled to make music is that if you keep making music you will become skilled, though possibly in unusual ways. Increasingly, he has collaborated with trained musicians; and although he still calls himself an artist, he is highly respected as a composer of the avant-garde, even though he does not read or write conventional notation. At the same time, he has continued to use music, records, record covers, musical instruments and images of music and music-making as material for sculpture, collage and video as well as performance.
Not all of this work is at the Whitney; "Festival" is not a full-dress retrospective. Instead, in keeping a fairly tight focus on the notion of the "visual score," curators David Kiehl and Limor Tomer give a concise cross section of his oeuvre that shows it to advantage, despite the absence of some of his best work. Among these I should at least mention two: the astonishing Video Quartet (2002), a four-channel projection that conjures up a new, fourteen-minute-long piece of music out of more than 700 brief clips taken mostly from Hollywood movies—scenes in which people are shown making music or at least making sounds; and Tape Fall (1989), a sculpture consisting of a reel-to-reel tape recorder mounted high up above one's head, playing a tape of the sound of trickling water that, instead of being taken up by a second reel, falls in elegant coils to form an ever-rising pile on the floor. One misses such pieces but not the relatively large quantity of facile, one-liner-ish works for which Marclay has also been responsible—for instance, assemblages of record covers that create grotesque figures out of, say, a solemnly gesturing orchestra conductor from the waist up matched with a ballerina en pointe from the waist down. In fact, the very notion of the visual score works against the one-liner. It means there always has to be at least a double take—one's perception of the graphic form should be followed by an effort to understand how it might be understood as a series of cues for making music.
The idea of the visual score—or graphic notation, as it is often called—is hardly a new one, originating with the composers of the New York School of the 1950s: Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff. But Marclay not only pursues the idea to unheard-of extremes; he turns it on its ear. When a composer presents the performer with a graphic score that may allow far more interpretive leeway than a conventional score would, he still has some basic sonic parameters in mind—and in any case, the score was produced with the idea of making music. That's not always the case with Marclay, for whom the visual takes precedence. And he sometimes asks performers to use as scores things that were never intended to have anything to do with music.
Shuffle (2007) is a deck of seventy-five cards with photographs taken by Marclay. Each shows an image of musical notation found in "real life"—that is to say, on billboards, candy boxes, T-shirts, cars, cakes, umbrellas, teacups—anywhere that a musical note might serve a decorative purpose, but not where it would have been meant to be read as a basis for making music. Yet this is what Marclay proposes: using this deck of cards as a recombinant score. What any given performer might make of, say, a single quaver crossed out, no particular tone specified, or a bunch of notes splashed across a staff with only two rather than five lines is entirely unpredictable; someone who went to hear pianist Anthony Coleman perform Shuffle on August 4 will undoubtedly have heard something with no discernible resemblance to either the version created by the duo of Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz on August 26 or what the great Canadian artist and musician Michael Snow will come up with on September 26. But even for those of us who could never make music out of these paltry and absurd signs, the effort to imagine doing so makes us see the images differently.
Another photographic piece with a somewhat more complicated genesis is Graffiti Composition (1996–2002). In 1996 Marclay had posters of blank staff paper printed and posted all over Berlin. Soon enough, the posters were torn and marked up by passers-by, half covered with other postings, written over—sometimes even with music. The results were photographed, and now these too constitute a score, also being performed several times during the course of the exhibition. From poster installation to photograph to score for an unpredictable sound event: "I like these evolving structures," Marclay says, "where I eventually lose control."
Not only graphic signs have a capacity to score the unforeseeable. Marclay conceives even some of his video works as scores, while Mixed Reviews (1999–2010) is a wall text made from excerpts spliced together from all kinds of music reviews, taking only the parts where the writer was trying to describe a specific sound or sound quality. The performer's task is to produce this sequence of sounds—a task perhaps made even more challenging by a twist: the piece has been displayed and performed in various countries; each time it is re-presented, it is translated into the language of the host country, and the subsequent version is translated in turn from that, not from the original English. This means that the text shown now at the Whitney is several generations removed from its first version—and presumably the sound sequences it might evoke are different as well.
As much as the sonic matter of music, Marclay takes much of his material from what might be called music's mythologies—in Roland Barthes's sense of that word. Unlike Ferrer, who would rather create symbols, Marclay prefers to deconstruct them. He cites conceptual artist Douglas Huebler's motto, so typical of the 1960s: "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more." But by reusing existing images, existing records, existing video footage, he comes closer to refraining from adding more meanings than more objects. Yet his work conceals a certain unresolved irony. It is possible to devise out of the banality of our visual environment a score that does not commit the composer—if that is still the right word—to any particular musical statement. Doing so has the desirable effect, at least momentarily, of scrubbing some elements of that environment clean of those heavily stereotyped meanings that constitute its banality, allowing one to see it as also rather wonderful. But the performer who interprets this score, who might also be its composer (Marclay will join singer Shelley Hirsch in musically interpreting the digital slide projection piece Zoom Zoom, 2007–09, on September 22), has no choice but to choose this sound rather than that, this structure rather than that, this myth rather than that. Deconstructing the old mythologies only clears the way for developing new ones. "Absence," as Marclay says, "is a void to be filled with one's own stories."