Richard Grayson, The Magpie Index, 2010, still from a color HD video, 80 minutes.

Richard Grayson, The Magpie Index, 2010, still from a color HD video, 80 minutes.

Richard Grayson

Richard Grayson, The Magpie Index, 2010, still from a color HD video, 80 minutes.

Simply described, Richard Grayson’s The Magpie Index, 2010, the sole work in this show, is a portrait of the singer-songwriter Roy Harper. Perhaps best known for his work as a sideman with luminaries such as Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour, Keith Moon, and Kate Bush, he is still relatively unknown to the broader public despite the honor of having a Led Zeppelin song named after him. This single-channel, high-definition video does not show Harper singing or playing, nor is it a typical documentary with historical footage and interviews with friends and associates building up a picture of the musician and his achievements. In fact, Harper merely discusses his thoughts on life. Music is mentioned little and heard not at all.

Grayson’s creative work has taken myriad forms, from art and performance to music as well as curating and criticism. Across the range of these approaches, what comes through is Grayson’s attraction to the description and creation of inner worlds. This was clearly demonstrated in the 2002 Biennale of Sydney, “(the world may be) Fantastic,” for which he was the artistic director; the exhibition included both work by the self-taught Henry Darger and an installation by the British installation artist Mike Nelson. In Grayson’s words, he is interested in “the ways we use narratives to understand the world around us and how in turn these narratives construct their own worlds.” It’s what the philosopher Nelson Goodman describes as “ways of worldmaking.”

The Magpie Index was commissioned by Locus+ and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, UK, where it was first exhibited in 2010. Edited from hours of interviews, during which neither interlocutor nor questions are evident, the work consists mostly of close-ups of Harper shot in a handful of locations: a garden, a recording studio, an office, a living room. Bearded, with longish white hair, he looks every bit the 1960s folk artiste, the intensity of attention offered by the talking-head format adding a sagelike quality to his speech. The monologue moves from personal reflections and a few of Harper’s thoughts about music to culture, politics, and theology, by way of ornithology and the environment. Slowly, it builds a picture of a worldview. There is no real narrative arc, except for one moment of dynamism when Harper moves to point at an image of the earth as seen from space. “That is where we live,” he says, “that narrow band there.” He advocates a Gaian view, explaining that the earth will eventually either embrace humankind or eliminate us. This apocalyptic note is one that echoes throughout Grayson’s oeuvre.

The Magpie Index is a portrait of one artist by another, and thus part of a long tradition. But Grayson is not, except incidentally, concerned with capturing a likeness or explicating his own aesthetic ideas—though Harper’s philosophy could well be one with which he agrees. One might think of some of Tacita Dean’s works, such as her films of Mario Merz or the poet Michael Hamburger. But where Dean appears to convey a sense of elegiac lateness appropriate to the poetic sensibility of her subjects, Grayson’s portrait is starker and more direct, even with the largesse of Harper’s humanity. Early in the video, Harper explains that what we do as humans is interpret. “Human culture,” he says, “is all about the evolution of interpretation.” Grayson has created an interpretation of Harper, but it is one that the songwriter may find consonant with his own sense of himself. He emerges not just as a musician, but as a thoughtful human being.

Sherman Sam