Leading the eye by the ear

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.

Elsewhere, the notorious joke about lurid pop star Michael Jackson -- that he was a poor black boy who grew up to be a rich white woman -- is illustrated by three record album covers elaborately sewn together with thick, white thread. Jackson’s head and torso are grafted onto a black woman’s lower body, while one leg extends to become a white woman’s gam. The stitching, evocative of plastic surgery, turns this freakish odalisque into Frankenstein’s tragic monster.

It’s doubtful Rolling Stone would put this incendiary work on its cover. But neither does it advance the discussion about either Jackson or modern imagery -- pop culture or art culture. Instead it’s complacent, just one more artist’s cover (pun intended) of a song we all know by heart.

Vinyl records and album covers are Marclay’s most common materials, especially after 1987. That year represents a tipping point for pop culture, when the CD, launched into the marketplace in 1983, was widely recognized as heralding the imminent death of vinyl. The extinction of older sound technologies is a recurrent Marclay motif -- like the reel-to-reel recorder in “Tape Fall” that had fallen into popular disuse. It’s also a subject of the 1990 sculpture “Boneyard,” in which 750 white plaster casts of old-fashioned telephone receivers are strewn across the floor, like prehistoric tar-pit fragments displayed in a world of gigahertz.

New technologies typically transform old ones into works of art. The stunning advent of television in the 1940s was met with the rise of avant-garde film. The sensational emergence of motion pictures early in the 20th century was accompanied by a concerted push toward art photography. Even photography’s own invention in the mid-19th century, which coincided with the formal development of the public art museum, helped change our ideas about painting. A functioning pictorial legacy of church and state authority was plucked from the traditional corridors of power, transforming painting into something new: an autonomous relic of a codified, edifying history of art.

Obsolescence brings with it functional uselessness. Then, as video pioneer Nam June Paik once put it in conversation, dust makes art. Marclay follows this proven path.

His shuffling of old album covers in the 1990s partly replays John Baldessari’s inspired mixing of old movie stills in the 1970s and 1980s. (Oddly, Baldessari doesn’t rate a mention in any of the catalog’s four essays.) If Baldessari wrote the masterful score, Marclay conducts the music, performing what’s been written.

Perhaps that’s why he’s most effective when setting static Baldessarian movie-still motifs back into motion. A short 1995 video strings together brief Hollywood movie clips, playing a version of the title’s familiar children’s game, “Telephones.” First we see actors dialing. Then phones ring. Other actors roll over in bed or rush to answer. Variations on “hello” are spoken, then sharp confusions, deceptions and miscommunications ensue -- only to be met by stunned silence at the other end of the line.

Finally, actors hang up, disappointed (or annoyed) by inescapable human failures to communicate. Like Marclay’s four-screen projection, “Video Quartet” (2002), which cobbles together a lively and imaginative cinematic symphony from movie clips of actors making music, “Telephones” injects some loose-limbed heat into a body of work more often chilled by formulaic intelligence.


Christian Marclay

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.; Wednesday to Friday, noon to 9 p.m.; closed Mondays

Ends: Aug. 31

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