In the world of exhibitions, there is a special niche for interesting failures, shows that have many things going for them--fresh ideas, worthy artists--but nevertheless ultimately are disappointing. "The Music Box Project," at the Long Beach Museum of Art through May 21, is one of those.
Organized by On the Table Inc., a nonprofit New York curatorial organization, the show consists of music boxes made by 20 contemporary American and European artists, architects and composers (including Kiki Smith, Coop Himmelblau and John Cage) in collaboration with Reuge Music of Sainte-Croix, Switzerland.
The idea was to combine the 200-year-old tradition of precision-crafted mechanical musical instruments with the inventive outlooks of contemporary artists who would design the boxes and, in some cases, write the music to be played on them. To be sure, the idea of reverting to the old-fashioned workings of a music box suggests a rather endearing piquancy in an age of DAT recorders and digital sampling.
The major problem, however, lies in the inherent conflict between contemporary artists' attempts to circumvent traditional notions of the individual artwork as a precious commodity, and the costly elegance of the top-of-the-line music boxes made by Reuge.
In fact, the mechanisms of the pieces are so delicate that viewers must stand by while specially trained docents wearing protective white gloves carefully wind up each of the 17 boxes. In an age when interactive media has become casually accepted, such fussiness can be deadening.
Several of the artists labored mightily to undermine the preciousness of the music box format, in ways that could be better appreciated if viewers were able to have a hands-on experience.
For example, Vito Acconci's "Ready-to-Wear Music Box" is a vest constructed from 30 plastic pouches. Each pouch contains a cheap music box mechanism activated by unsnapping a Velcro pocket fastener. (The music comes from Reuge's regular playlist of standard tunes, from "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies" to "Ave Maria.")
In another witty vein, performance artist Laurie Anderson's "Tilt No. 1" is a carpenter's level that plays one of two tinkly tunes she composed--and activates either a tiny balloon or a bobbing boat--depending on which way you tilt it. Keep it level, however, and it remains silent: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The music in these boxes tends to be rather disappointing, by the way, at least in the snippets you get to hear when the boxes are activated. John Cale, the former Velvet Underground member, originally tried to create a low rumbling sound for his music box, according to curator Claudia Gould. When that proved impossible to achieve, he settled for an untitled composition he had written for a friend's wedding, a bland little piece of no particular distinction.
On the other hand, you could say that about a music box version of a Mozart sonata or Beethoven's Fifth; the tinny sound tends to debase all musical compositions to the level of "Happy Birthday." Perhaps that's what Acconci was getting at with his potpourri of music box hits.
In any case, Cale teamed up with conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, who embroidered ironically on the theme of two individuals united in matrimony by inserting the mechanism inside a massive leather-bound book. Although reading is a solitary pleasure, readers form a community of people all immersed in the same fictional construct. On the cover, Kosuth inscribed a phrase from the French novelist Honore de Balzac: "Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine."
Actually, some of the stories about how the boxes came to be are more interesting than the actual boxes. In fact, the whole project tends to be more interesting on a conceptual level than in realized form.
The most visually effective piece in the show is "I Wrote It in Tokyo in 1954" by Nam June Paik, the internationally known video artist: The screen of an elaborate old RCA Victor TV set "broadcasts" the workings of the music box inside.
Photographed by an internal video camera, the revolving cylinder--outfitted with pins that strike the tuned steel teeth--appears to roll endlessly toward us, like a sort of magic superhighway. The music is almost inaudible, recalling the common practice of turning down a TV's sound knob while keeping the picture on as a silent companion, and ironically reaffirming the primacy of TV as a visual medium.
Another piece with a strong visual presence is Aminah Robinson's "My Lord What a Morning." Topping a tall "chorus" of 10 organ pipes loosely painted with elongated black bodies and phrases from spirituals are fragments of wrought-iron architectural trim that invoke both the empowered presence of African headdresses and the plantation gates forged by black slaves in the American South.
Aurally, the resonating pipes amplify the tinklings of music box spirituals into a full-bodied sound that happily ignores the polite, drawing-room conventions of the music box world.
Perhaps the closest the exhibition comes to a creative reinterpretation of both aural and visual music box qualities is "Blind Ear." Artist Kiki Smith's idea of transcribing a Braille version of a poem she wrote into the visually similar raised patterns that produce sound in a music box--an unusual sort of synesthesia--resulted in a stumbling, atonal composition.
On the music box itself, which looks like a block of ice, a sculpted ear rests in the palm of a hand--an evocation of the heightened sense of touch and sensation often granted to the blind. The additional music composed by Margaret DeWys may well have been beside the point.
* "The Music Box Project" continues through May 21 at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays. Admission: $2 for adults, $1 for students and seniors, free for ages 12 and under. (310) 439-2119.