Washington, DC

Christian Marclay

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Christian Marclay’s work has an immediacy that results from his focus on music and popular music culture. Records, record jackets, audio speakers, and similar found objects form the bulk of the more than 40 pieces from the last decade exhibited here. “Recycled Records” 1980–86, is a series of works realized by reassembling pieces cut from records of various colors. Some of these pieces incorporate photographs, and the results range from collaged images of pop singers such as Elvis to white crossbones on a black ground. Though ’60s nostalgia colors Marclay’s entire oeuvre, his work addresses a much wider and more diverse spectrum of culture.

In Door, 1980, two violin f-holes have been cut into an old door leaning casually against the gallery wall. The obvious references to Man Ray, Ingres, and music have been conflated into an iconic image animated less by ’60s nostalgia than by general intellectual wit. In an untitled series from 1988–89, comprised of 14 record jackets, Marclay carefully inserted pieces cut from other jackets to transform the originals; hung like paintings, these pieces suggest the abstractions of Kasimir Malevich and Josef Albers. Music Box, 1988, a cube with record jackets for sides, imitates Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, while Five Cubes, 1989, made by fusing records together, evokes the compressed junk sculpture of John Chamberlain.

In Tape Fall, 1989, the central attraction of the show, Marclay installed a reel-to-reel tape recorder at the top of a ladder reaching the gallery ceiling. As the machine plays (minus the pickup reel), one hears amplified sounds of dripping water and sees the tape unwind, falling into a pile on the floor that gets bigger for the duration of the exhibition. In a nod at Piero Manzoni, who canned “artist’s excrement,” Marclay bottled actual tape in a piece entitled Bottled Water, 1990. For all his interest in music, it is significant that Marclay actually avoids sound. Instead, he works with the idea of music, employing musical accoutrements as cultural props in a conceptual game in which artistic meaning exists as a series of references to past culture. Reference itself becomes the key term here, acting as a kind of surrogate for meaning. This is a telling if inadvertent comment on the condition of current culture, suggesting an unwillingness or inability to engage life in the present. It is this that gives a poetic sense to work in which any direct experience of art or of an original utterance seems impossible. Thus Chorus, 1988, a group of 22 photographs made from found images of close-ups of singing mouths, recalls Dada photomontages as well as Allan McCollum’s salon-style clusters of surrogate paintings, underscoring its own mute impotence. This quality is epitomized by Secret, 1988, a nickel-plated record of Marclay’s own music that is unplayable because padlocked.

Ultimately, the question of living versus embalmed culture lurks behind these “musical” works with their aural messages forever stilled. This theme animates both a piece entitled Sound Sheet, 1990, in which clear flexidisc records are stitched together to suggest a shower curtain and another in which they are strung together as beads on a giant bracelet entitled Ring, 1988. As if in a postapocalyptic dream, one can only scavenge through culture, treating it as so much debris, the original meaning of which is forever irredeemable.

Howard Risatti