An underwater playground

Special to The Times

“Sea Tails: A Video Collaboration” is not the sort of show that is likely to increase attendance at the Getty Center. It’s hard to imagine anyone traveling to the Brentwood hilltop -- aside from hard-core David Tudor fans -- just to see the newly restored version of the avant-garde musician’s 1983 collaboration with experimental filmmaker Molly Davies and French artist Jackie Matisse. But if you find yourself at the Getty this summer, don’t miss “Sea Tails.” It’s a refreshing change of pace that’s well worth a walk across the courtyard -- and 20 minutes of air-conditioned reverie.

The modest exhibition occupies two small galleries inside the main entrance of the Getty Research Institute. The first provides an experience that is the opposite of a walk across the courtyard, especially if you forgot your sunglasses and had to squint because of the sun’s glare off the chrome handrails, huge panes of glass and seemingly endless expanses of glossy paint, polished marble and roughly cut travertine.

Outside, everything is bright, angular and rigid. The architecture is laid out with surgical precision. So are the gardens. The whole scene is so pristine that by midafternoon it has the stillness of a picture -- except for the tourists who scurry to get out of the sun and the families hunting for refreshment stands with shorter lines.


Inside, everything is dark, cool and soothing. The setup is casually ad hoc, even funky, especially for the Getty, which specializes in first-class formality and spare-no-expense displays.

At the gallery’s entrance, sunlight is blocked by five curtain-size sheets of thick felt. They hang unceremoniously over floor-to-ceiling windows. If Joseph Beuys came back to life as an interior decorator, this is what his work would look like.

Inside the dimly lighted gallery, foam baffling covers the walls. It’s the same egg-carton-shaped stuff backyard drummers line their garages with to mollify neighbors. Here it works well, stopping stray sounds from bouncing around so that the supple rhythms of the offbeat music by Tudor (1926-1996) can be heard.

The spare score is made up of underwater sounds -- pings, clicks and burbles of air bubbles jiggling to the surface, static crackling along lines of submerged microphones and other strange little crunching noises that suggest all sorts of enigmatic sources and mysterious aquatic incidents.

Tudor’s organic music is the soundtrack for Davies’ three-channel video, which plays on six regular-size monitors set in a black wall. Each scene is displayed in duplicate. Shot underwater in the Bahamas over eight days in 1983, the easygoing video features Matisse’s fabric sculptures undulating through invisible currents against a gorgeous blue background illuminated by golden Caribbean sunlight. Six serviceable stools invite you to get off your feet.

Davies’ movie has more in common with abstract painting from the 1970s, structuralist film from the ‘60s and contemporary computer graphics than with current Hollywood fare. Think of it as a large-scale, slow-motion screen-saver that combines logic, repetition and happenstance in just the right mix to allow viewers to immerse themselves in pleasurable reveries loosely tethered to the real world.

It’s the opposite of both “Das Boot” and “Jaws.” None of the adrenalin-pumping, nail-biting suspense that drives those ominous dramas is to be found in Davies’ non-narrative movie and Tudor’s lilting score. Rather than treating the sea’s unfathomable vastness as a treacherous territory filled with deadly threats that regularly emerge, as if out of nowhere, “Sea Tails” makes the underwater world look like an abstract playground, a carefree escape where line, shape and color frolic.

Matisse’s sculptures resemble the tails of homemade kites -- not the custom models made of high-tech synthetics now sold in specialty stores, but the old-fashioned kind, crafted from torn scraps of colorful fabric tied in loopy bows and left hanging like party streamers.

To make her oversize tails, some of which appear to be more than 50-feet long, Matisse started with the sturdy mesh material gardeners use to protect plants from late spring and early fall frosts. On these rolls of fabric, she used brushes and crudely cut stencils to paint geometric shapes, simple patterns and randomly sampled bits of the alphabet.

On their own, they don’t look like much. But tied in clusters, submerged and pulled by scuba divers, they become graceful forms that swirl, weave and dance through the crystal-clear Caribbean.

Davies’ camera work (and editing) accentuates the tails’ languid movements, drifting up for sensuous close-ups and floating back to capture more complex compositions. The speed at which the tails travel shifts commensurately, as does the scale of the simple forms. Like movie props, they are transformed by the camera’s magic, their basic materials becoming a wondrous spectacle that excites the imagination.

It doesn’t take a great leap to imagine that you’re watching the clothing of a giant squid, shed in haste, fall to the floor. Works of art also come to mind: Matisse’s fabric sculptures look like Kim MacConnel’s pattern-and-decoration paintings that have gone swimming, or pieces that John Chamberlain would make if he used kelp instead of bent metal.

Tudor’s soundtrack, however, is the most seductive component of the show. It’s also the most complex, giving languor a lyricism all its own.

Playing long silent spells against delicate bursts and flurries of ambient underwater noises, Tudor’s fluid composition arranges a seemingly random sequence of sounds into an orderly whole that make perfect sense if you’re not in a rush to figure it all out as fast as you can read a wall-label.

The six monitors do something similar, showing different sequences of the same 7-minute, 30-second video, which add up to a 22-minute, 30-second cycle. But the visuals can’t be layered like the sounds.

Rather than overlapping in single moments, the images are set next to one another, on a grid of six monitors. The multilayered richness of “Sea Tails” resides in its deftly mixed sounds.

The second gallery displays letters, graphs, charts and other documentary materials that go a long way to explain how Tudor, Davies and Matisse collaborated, and how the structure of “Sea Tails” evolved.

There’s a logic at the heart of their interactive work, but even more serendipity and good will. Today, their 20-year-old piece seems old-fashioned because it embodies the late-bohemian/early hippie conviction that beauty is out there. It just seems to be in short supply because we’re too busy to be bothered by its time-consuming demands.


‘Sea Tails’

Where: The Getty Research Institute, 1200 Getty Center Drive

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, closed Mondays

Ends: Sept. 26

Price: Free, parking $5

Info: (310) 440-7300