Los Angeles

Christian Marclay, Footstompin’, 1991, album covers and thread, 17 1/4 x 36". From the series “Body Mix,” 1991–92.

Christian Marclay, Footstompin’, 1991, album covers and thread, 17 1/4 x 36". From the series “Body Mix,” 1991–92.

Christian Marclay

Karlheinz Brandenburg is a name that would probably ring few bells for visitors to Christian Marclay’s midcareer retrospective at the UCLA Hammer Museum, but in critical respects, he stands as a kind of shadow figure to the artist’s investigations into the intersection between sound and visual culture. Surveying Marclay’s output of the last two decades—collaged album covers, altered vinyl, and musical instruments retooled into sculptural objects, as well as video and photography—one confronts a host of musical references as a matter of course: John Cage, Sonic Youth, any number of mixmasters and turntablists. But Brandenburg? The principle inventor of MP3 compression technology, Brandenburg recently slammed the practice of illegal file sharing while kneeling at the altar of analog music. “My sympathy is always with the artists and even with the record labels,” he remarked. “I don’t like the Napster idea that all music should be free to everybody.” The conflicted position Brandenberg occupies—at once acknowledging and abetting the ephemerality of music (through digitization) and expressing sympathy for the fate of analog recording technology—corresponds to the central problematic that Marclay’s work repeatedly takes up: the stark contrast between the seeming evanescence of aural culture and its stubborn materiality, as borne out in the form of its visual supplements and physical props.

Thoughtfully organized by Hammer chief curator Russell Ferguson, Marclay’s exhibition is wildly democratic in its appeal to art-world and music cognoscenti and to a public long alienated by the perceived obscurantism of contemporary art (eavesdropping in the galleries, one hears comments ranging from “Wasn’t that a Richter on the cover of Daydream Nation?” to “Pat Benatar . . . she rocked!”). Yet it would be wrong to take Marclay’s media manipulations at face value, as little more than witty riffs on popular culture. Some works do function as clever, rebuslike puzzles: In the “Body Mix” series, 1991–92, Marclay artfully sutures together album covers to produce pop-music Frankensteins, with Michael Jackson’s torso, for instance, morphing into the decidedly feminine midriff of another album’s cover model. And in the brilliantly edited and perfectly synched Video Quartet, 2002, four DVD screen projections cycle through a disparate range of movie clips with sound and music as their theme. It’s a monumental (and monumentally entertaining) work: Where else are you going to see Don’t Look Back–era Dylan segue into an Ann Miller tap-dancing sequence? Entertainment, however, may be the red herring of Marclay’s practice. Just as Brandenburg’s stance exemplifies contradiction, Marclay’s work ultimately exploits the tension between the fugitive and the intransigent, its entertainment value notwithstanding.

This idea finds thematic expression in Marclay’s attention to lapsed and ineffectual communication. No surprise, then, that the lowly, old-fashioned telephone is such an insistent figure throughout the show. Boneyard, 1990, is a scatter piece in which the ghostly white casts of some 750 telephone receivers, powerless to communicate, make up a kind of silent elephants’ graveyard; and an untitled work from 1989 features a receiver bound together with adhesive tape, the ear- and mouthpiece twisted in opposite directions so as to render conversation impossible. Marclay’s use of the body in his work also registers this tension: The mutability of our own substance analogizes the transience of sound, and musical instruments and records in turn are seen as prosthetics. My Weight in Records, 1995, is composed of several cardboard boxes of vinyl that quietly monopolize a corner of a gallery, equating the mass and volume occupied by the artist to those of music itself. From Hand to Ear, 1994, a Naumanesque casting of the artist’s arm and ear melded into one piece, underscores the virtual passage between audition and touch, as if sound were something to grasp literally. By far the most brutal work in the show is Guitar Drag, 2000, a video documenting the destruction of an amplified Stratocaster as it is hauled at great speed from behind a pickup truck. Calling on a tradition that includes Jimi Hendrix, Fluxus, and punk, its sound track proves excruciating to even the most devoted connoisseurs of noise. But the work also elicits a far grimmer reading that turns around the precarious physicality of the body: the lynching of African American James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to death from behind a truck in 1998.

It’s fitting that the exhibition concludes with Tape Fall, 1989, a strangely melancholic paean to the material degradation of sound in the environment. A reel-to-reel tape deck is placed on top of a ladder; the take-up reel, however, has gone missing. The tape itself, a recording of gurgling water, falls in great looping masses to the ground. Marclay’s Duchampian tendencies are much in evidence here—the sound of cascading water puns with the falling of the tape—but it is also a Smithson-like monument to entropy. That sound, we understand, is irrecoverable, gone in the moment of its playing; all that is left is an ever-growing heap of spent noise. What remains, as in all of Marclay’s art, is a recalcitrant material fetish—a commodity fetish, really—that takes the form of wasted tape, scratched vinyl, bruised album covers, and twisted musical instruments. Playing on our nostalgia for such largely obsolete and mangled media, Marclay’s work comprises an aesthetics of missed communications—he doesn’t seek seamless integration of sound and vision but documents the fallout that results from their confrontation. Paradoxically, the sense of urgency Marclay consistently brings to this confrontation dramatizes the most pressing issues of new media in both art and music today.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.