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Leading the eye by the ear

ART REVIEW

Using visuals, Christian Marclay explores audio.

June 03, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In the mid-career survey of New York artist Christian Marclay that opened Sunday at the UCLA Hammer Museum, a display case holds a pair of percussion drumsticks ordinary in every way save one: The drumsticks are made of glass. This chaste sculpture evokes the possibility of sound, which isn't something your garden-variety Bernini or Brancusi often does.

The sound that glass drumsticks might produce is particular -- fragile, muted, excruciatingly controlled -- lest an enthusiastic burst of banging on a snare should also generate the tinkle of shattered crystal. Marclay, it appears, is marching to the sound of a different drummer.

In reality, the drummer is a pretty common one. Marclay's brand of Conceptual art, as presented by this survey of some 60 works, is familiar. Ordinary objects get gently tweaked, often to create a sight gag or pun. With language at its root, the steady reliance on puns to do art's heavy lifting has been standard operating procedure for 40 years, ever since the revival of interest in Marcel Duchamp, the papa of Dada art.

A suppression of art's visual qualities is announced early in the show, which was organized by Hammer chief curator Russell Ferguson. (The installation isn't chronological.)

Placed near the entrance is 1994's "White Noise." A large gallery wall is papered over with hundreds of vintage snapshots, each affixed with a single straight pin, like an insect on a specimen tray.

The pictures face the wall, like naughty children. You can tell the photos are old by their shapes and forms -- scalloped edges, Polaroids, yellowed paper -- and that they're vernacular by the installation method. (Who would pin vintage art to the wall?) Notations on some give clues to the hidden images: "This is the oat field in back of the trees ... " and (in German) "mother and child, Berlin Zoo."

The ubiquity of camera images in contemporary life -- its condition as visual noise -- is well-trod ground. So is acknowledging the homogenous space of the all-white art gallery, which "White Noise" echoes but doesn't disrupt. Marclay's visual strategy is direct: Start with a cliche or other established idea, then objectify it.

As "White Noise" and the glass "Drumsticks" indicate, Marclay's distinctive (but not unique) contribution to this fully domesticated breed of anti-visual Conceptual art is a concentration on sound. In shutting out the eye, he tunes in the ear.

In case you miss the (hard to miss) point, in 1994, the year Bruce Nauman's hugely influential museum retrospective was in the midst of its international victory tour, Marclay made homage to the American idol of Conceptual art. Nauman's famous wax sculpture, "From Hand to Mouth," cast from his own body, started at the right hand, traveled up the arm to the shoulder and neck and ended at his mouth. Marclay's "From Hand to Ear" did the same, with one minor detour.

Nauman's brilliant 1967 sculpture joked about the artist's impoverished state -- "from hand to mouth" -- while meditating on the artist's task, where making (the hand) and speaking (the mouth) are inseparable. It also followed the path by which art makes meaning -- from the artist's hand to the audience's response.

Marclay's tweaked version might be an unblushing suggestion that making is also a form of listening, but Nauman anticipated that too: Both covers of his retrospective catalog feature a video still of a human ear. The pair turn the book into an amusing "head," filled with verbal knowledge.

Marclay is a musician as well as an artist, so his artistic interest in sound is inevitable. Puns, which often rely on the similarity of sounds made by different words, are everywhere in the show -- sometimes charmingly so.

My favorite is 1989's "Tape Fall," in which a reel-to-reel tape recorder placed atop a metal ladder plays back the sound of running water. One reel is missing, so the tape unfurls through the machine and cascades onto the floor, making an increasingly large pile. "Tape Fall" is a burbling waterfall for the age of mechanical reproduction, and it's as soothing as its woodland cousin.

Often, though, the jokes are thin or redundant -- a cardinal offense for a pun, whose multiplicity of meanings is chief among its less-is-more assets. Take the 1988 photograph of Simon and Garfunkel's 1965 record "The Sounds of Silence." Ha! A silent picture of sound! And, as a pop music format, the 45-rpm single has itself been silenced, courtesy of new digital technologies like the compact disc. Marclay's clever photo would make an exceptional cover to a 1988 issue of Rolling Stone, but artistically it's slight.

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