“Sampling,” a small exhibition of work by Christian Marclay at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a rare treat. Though Marclay has been creating work that astutely explores the intersection of the visual arts and music for more than a decade, he's remained something of an insider's artist — admired by those in the know, but known to far too few.
Marclay's clearly fascinated by the physical manifestation of sound. Vinyl records and audiotapes make frequent appearances in his sculptural installations, as do more abstract visualizations of music like record jackets and found paintings of musical instruments. Tapefall (1989), one of Marclay's most celebrated pieces, exemplifies his interests. A stream of audiotape cascades slowly from a reel-to-reel player mounted atop a ladder, forming a growing mound on the floor. The gurgle of languidly dripping water broadcasts from the tape as it falls, creating a perfect synchronicity of sound and form.
Though trained as a visual artist, Marclay found himself at the forefront of experimental music in the late '70s. He used skipping, scratching, and crackling surface noise in his performances long before turntablism became an art form (or even a word). Here he uses his deep involvement with DJ culture to great effect in the show's central work, Video Quartet, the production of which he has compared to wielding four turntables simultaneously.
The resulting “quartet” is extraordinary. To create it, Marclay mined the movies, selecting short clips from an impressive range of films that depict people playing musical instruments. He uses each clip as found, without altering its pitch or tone, weaving them into a coherent 13-minute composition that makes sense both visually and musically. Four musicians play simultaneously at any given time, but each player occupies his or her seat for a minute or less. A motley group of musicians and actors, ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Stewart, pass through, creating some unlikely foursomes. One would expect such a cobbled composition to be halting and uneven, but the technical genius with which Marclay has assembled this footage is stunning. And while the resulting score isn't exactly Aaron Copland, it is fluid and often lyrical.
Like the big-screen films from which it borrows, Video Quartet is monumental in scale. The four separate projections that comprise it are positioned side by side on a single long wall, stretching to the periphery of one's field of vision. It's physically impossible to watch all four images at once — one must make choices — so successive viewings produce different effects, with new details revealed upon each “retelling.” It's an incredibly rich work, rife with the appropriated imagery that characterizes much postmodern art, but blissfully free of the irony and smugness that mars most such endeavors. A closer analogy would be to a DJ's efforts, in which sampling and mixing breathe new life into stale cultural artifacts.
The success of Video Quartet relies largely on the emotive power of both film and music. A 30-second clip of Ingrid Bergman humming “As Time Goes By,” for instance, has the power to evoke both Rick and Ilsa's highly charged relationship and the circumstances of the viewer's own life the first time he watched Casablanca. Marclay plays with these associations, deftly layering scenes that trigger both personal and collective cultural memories to create absurd and wonderful connections. In a recent press preview, he commented that “making this piece was kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle … or actually, more like a Rubik's Cube.” Our reception of it happens in much the same way, as our brains struggle to make sense of the juxtaposition of wildly different images, many of which already have a staggering load of meanings attached to them.
Many of Marclay's works tread the line that divides the clever from the merely gimmicky. Unfortunately, the third and final work in this exhibition, Up and Out, dives headlong into extremely shallow water. Up and Out is a feature-length film (screened only once, on the exhibition's opening night) that pairs the visuals from Michelangelo Antonioni's seminal 1966 film Blowup with the vocals from Brian De Palma's 1981 tribute, Blow Out. Though there are some serendipitous moments in which the dialogue creates an amusing match for the action, Marclay's piece comes off as a highbrow version of the stoner party trick that couples The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon — but with less interesting results.
Video Quartet, on the other hand, successfully sidesteps this fate. Marclay's subtle wit and technical prowess are apparent throughout. He's even produced a few moments of comic genius: The incomparable Groucho Marx tosses his guitar overboard in midserenade amidst a slew of scenes depicting the violent destruction of musical instruments, and punk icon Johnny Rotten makes a timely appearance in a climactic montage of shrieking horror-film heroines. Marclay also includes moments of intense beauty, many of which are silent but visually related to the images and sounds that fill the neighboring screens. The frame of a sunken upright from The Piano is particularly poignant, providing an elegant pause in an otherwise manic composition.
Marclay's been called a “dada DJ” — a fitting title for an artist whose work is suffused with the spirit of avant-garde sound experiments and guerrilla art practices. Despite these fringe-culture credentials, Marclay creates art with astonishing mainstream appeal, infusing familiar relics of pop culture with just a touch of the absurd.