New York

Christian Marclay

If one could make a diagram of the way Christian Marclay thinks, it might look something like the family tree of the royals, with crossing arrows linking cousins and in-laws: Fluxus here, Brancusi there, Duchamp, punk, John Cage, noise music, hip-hop, Vito Acconci, Structuralist film, and much, much more. Marclay is constantly sampling from all over the place to create a seamless and original combination of material that conjures up art, film, and music history, both distant and recent, as well as current events. Add a reliance on visual stimuli and an irrepressible sense of rhythm and you get a portrait of an artist whose work has grown over two decades into a lyrical rendering of the marriage between music and art.

The centerpiece of Marclay’s recent exhibition is a perfect example of the artist’s grasp of this relationship. A well-proportioned stage (possibly the best use yet of Chelsea’s overscaled interiors) was lit not with standard gallery lighting but with the red, green, and blue of the theater and auditorium. Instruments rather than their players were on show. Yet each soundmaker—a twenty-five-foot-long accordion (Virtuoso, 2000), a thirteen-foot-high set of drums (Drumkit, 1999), a limp rubber guitar in bubble-gum pink (Prosthesis, 2000), a tuba spliced with a pocket trumpet (Lip Lock, 2000)-—suggests a ghostly band as funny and vibrant as a musical parade of mimes in a Fellini film. Rock ‘n’ roll romance, Surrealism, and Cubism are the themes of this silent performance.

White noise and the sound of violence constitute the flip side of this starkly elegant tableau. In a small, dark screening room, an electric guitar is taking a beating. In full color and at full speed, a digital video projection shows a truck mercilessly dragging a guitar by a rope across plowed fields, over grass and gravel, and along a tarred highway. Guitar Drag, 2000, is painful to watch; it has the smell of a Mississippi Burning. In fact, it was filmed in San Antonio, Texas, during the trial of three racists who tethered a black man to their pickup and dragged him to his death. Ever mindful of the cultural landscape, Marclay could not help himself: he mixed this real-life horror story with more whimsical references—from Nam June Paik, who dragged a violin behind him on a street in 1961, to the Sex Pistols and The Who, with their guitar-smashing histrionics.

Since coming of age as an artist in the ’70s, Marclay has held his own in the arenas if both art and music, straddling a constantly shifting divide between high art and low, pop music and avant-garde composition, and his audiences have gladly followed him wherever he goes. He remains in fashion, although he’s been around too long to be merely fashionable.

RoseLee Goldberg