San Francisco

Christian Marclay

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

More than a decade separates Christian Marclay's Tape Fall, 1989, a classic early Marclay fusion of object and sound, from this year's Video Quartet, a sublime meditation on film as an audiovisual medium. But seeing both pieces together in this compact exhibition, titled “Sampling/Christian Marclay,” revealed the artist's consistent ability to transform simple juxtapositions of sound and vision into works that blossom sensually and cerebrally. While the show did not capture the overall arc of Marclay's practice, the two works shown here did mark pinnacle moments.

Tape Fall is composed of a reel-to-reel tape console perched high atop a ladder, with a single regularly recycled audiotape wending its way down from the machine in loopy configurations to create a heap on the floor. The tape plays the sound of dripping water, completing the metaphor of a trickling waterfall and puddle. The languid pacing of the sculpture's motion is oddly satisfying; watching ribbons of slowly cascading material is truly meditative.

The audiotape physically resembles film stock, so there's irony in the fact that the unabashedly cinematic Video Quartet is a digital work. Commissioned by SF MoMA and the Foundation Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg, the synchronized four-screen DVD projection is composed of hundreds of clips from Hollywood movies that depict people and objects making music and random sounds. Hands are shown on keyboards, horns, and violins; men and women sing, dance, and engage in various other acts of purposeful or accidental noisemaking. The combined sound of the snippets, which were impeccably edited by the artist using an off-the-shelf computer program (Final Cut Pro), forms a multidimensional composition. The piece is a mixture of laptop multimedia collage and more conventional acts of cinematic and musical arranging that shows Marclay at the peak of his powers, converting an overabundance of information into an uncommon pleasure.

The feel of the piece is epic, and not just because the presentation format—the four projection screens are abutted—suggests Cinemascope with an extra horizontal stretch. The work also has a narrative quality that follows musical structures. A tune-up prologue segues into sections devoted to specific instruments—piano, violin, or voice—which build to a stunning climax of cacophonous crashes before winding down to a calm conclusion punctuated by a slamming door. The sequence is filled with movie-star moments, including Janet Leigh screaming in Psycho, Ada's instrument sinking into the sea in The Piano, Rita Hayworth lip-synching; among legendary musicians here are Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Charlotte Moorman. Combined, the pictures compose an exploded version of those movie-classics montages at the beginning of a rental video; yet this massive pool of images taps the collective pop-cultural consciousness.

There's an impressive cohesiveness and sense of rhythm to the interplay of all these elements. In an unusually celebratory act of multitasking, Marclay's mise-en-scène cuts across the four screens, bumping the editing practice to a level of high art and satisfying experimental music. And, while Video Quartet has a thirteen-minute running time, its gracious abundance provides the appeal of a good pop song. At SF MoMA, it was the rare time-based work that had multigenerational audiences making repeated viewings, engaging in a gleeful game of identifying the stream of sources, or simply enjoying its entertaining flow.

Glen Helfand