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Christian Marclay, known primarily as a musician, also makes sculptures, conceptual pieces, and videos. His recent installation Video Quartet at Paula Cooper Gallery on 21st Street, was not only a jaw-dropping piece of experimental music, it was also a tutorial in what has become possible to achieve in a bedroom with a laptop. And in Marclay’s final act of genre-bending, Video Quartet appears as a quadruple-screen DVD projection, making the cinematic seem perhaps its most appropriate categorization.

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So is Marclay an artist or a musician? SFMOMA launched a 2002 exhibition of his work entitled Sampling/ Christian Marclay; UCLA’s Hammer Museum has a Marclay mid-career retrospective opening in May; his work was included in last year’s Whitney Biennial; and he’s been exhibiting regularly in galleries since the late 1980s. As a musician, Marclay helped introduce turntables as an instrument to be taken seriously in contemporary music. He’s also appeared on almost too many albums to count, his name surfacing on record sleeves alongside downtown noise titans like John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, Ikue Mori, Elliott Sharp, and Sonic Youth. Medium-hopping artists like Laurie Anderson and Barbara Ess have bridged the worlds of experimental music and visual art, but never really under the same guise. For both Anderson and Ess, their music was one thing, their art another. Marclay’s Video Quartet, on the other hand, mixes media to epic effect, with each screening of the 13-minute sound/video piece consistently concluding with a chorus of applause from the stunned gallery audience.

Video Quartet is composed of hundreds of clips culled from Hollywood movies then and now (mostly then), edited together with Final Cut Pro software, and presented in real time on four side-by-side video screens. Marclay has carefully selected the clips, either retaining their original music or inserting some type of found sound, and created a mesmerizing audio-visual collage, a visible avant-noise epic. Considering that Video Quartet is created from wildly varying samples flickering across four screens, the consistency of mood, tone, and form Marclay manages to maintain is something of a minor miracle. On the screens: tentative taps on a piano; cockroaches falling onto a dusty piano; another piano playing by itself; a gong being struck; a car peeling out; metalheads rocking out; Hendrix jamming; Michael J. Fox (in Marty McFly mode) jamming; Marilyn Monroe slapping adoring men with a fan and yelling “NO!”; Elvis croaking; a shower curtain being torn down; a cymbal crashing to the ground; Brigitte Bardot stroking herself with a feather; and, like van Eyck painting himself in the mirror, a turntable’s lonely needle digging at a record in the futile search for a groove.

Clearly there are too many images to list. But surprisingly the music, or “song,” that is the audio component of Video Quartet is considerably less chaotic. The mood is consistently energetic and often joyous, giving the whole presentation the eerie feel of a detached, futuristic musical. The intervals featuring mostly piano across all four screens (there are a couple) are brief and tantalizing intervals of sparseness and serenity. Simple phase patterns are implemented and promptly toppled by a barrage of everything else—the scream from Psycho, an operatic soprano (times four), a somber cello. Video Quartet is nothing if not a mirror of contemporary Western culture, where advanced technology has made digitized information and easy access to spectacular imagery commonplace and expected. With the torrent of images dancing across the screens, it’s impossible to take the whole thing in during one sitting. Equally impossible is an attempt to categorize what Marclay has done in a musical sense with Video Quartet. The stamp on this piece is unmistakably his and can be viewed as an extension of the 1998 piece “Up and Out,” where he combined footage from Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up with the soundtrack to Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. But ironically, Marclay’s stamp is an invisible one. The hand of the artist/musician has vanished in favor of the completely quotidian. The concept isn’t unheard-of in visual art: Sherrie Levine, who took photos of Walker Evans photos and showed them, inspiring great art world controversy, is one of the more obvious examples. Musically, however, this is a relatively new idea. Urban D.J.s have recently begun creating compositions by combining two or more unrelated songs (with the resulting pieces sometimes referred to informally as “mashups” or “sound clashes”), but the genre still doesn’t have a formalized name. In a multimedia format like Video Quartet, however, there is little precedent for such an ambitious work that is so totally reliant on the visual and musical work of others.

One thing Video Quartet lacks is the humanity of some of Marclay’s earlier projects combining music and art, especially his 1996 Graffiti Composition, where he printed 5,000 blank sheets of music paper and posted them throughout Berlin, inviting the public to fill them in with musical notations, scribblings, or anything else. The sheets were subsequently collected and compiled into a monstrous score, dedicated to Berlin’s inhabitants. That type of experimentation with chance has been purged from Video Quartet in favor of complete technical refinement. Does it, then, reduce Marclay to a mere technician? It’s honestly hard to escape that conclusion, since Video Quartet can be so stupefying as to actually be alienating. Yet his process is completely demystified—it’s obvious how he made the piece, and this is partly why the gallery audience is invariably riveted during each screening. This new direction is a significant U-turn from the populism of previous pieces like 2001’s Guitar Drag, where he set a guitar amp in the bed of a truck, plugged in a Fender, drove around, and made a video of the guitar scraping deafeningly along the asphalt. But Video Quartet reflects a new era in the use of technology to make music and art in a very relevant way. Ours is a time of technological refinement and advancement, increasingly available on the cheap, and Video Quartet speaks measures not only as a groundbreaking blurring of the boundaries separating art from music, but also as a testament to a new era of artistic and musical possibilities.


Nick Stillman


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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