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A Symphony of Images, Scored By a Maestro

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page C01

LONDON -- Four big movie screens, installed side by side, with a swarm of familiar images flying across them. There's a quick snippet of Chico Marx doing his piano tricks. A slightly longer view of cowboy Elvis, dying from a loud gunshot. A big diva trills her guts out on screen one, then two, then three and four as well, until it's booming opera all across the board. Varied cymbal clashes flicker by, on one screen or another, along with sundry piano crashes; shots from Clint Eastwood's film about Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix in concert and the banjo-playing child in "Deliverance."

The pace slows a bit when the ever-gracious Ingrid Bergman appears at a piano and when we see the empty practice hall from Fellini's "Orchestra Rehearsal." But the ripping curtain from the "Psycho" shower scene or a splinter of dance from "West Side Story" soon set things moving again, as hundreds of other fragments of our cultural unconscious go skittering by.

Marclay lends visual appeal to musical instruments in a surreal way with an extra long accordion in "Virtuoso." (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

This is how sound looks in Western life, as laid out in "Video Quartet," a very recent piece by 50-year-old artist Christian Marclay. Marclay's installation is as impressive as contemporary art gets, with an emotional charge that should leave a lump in almost any viewer's throat. Casual visitors have apparently been known to wander in, sit through the 15-minute loop two or three times, then break into spontaneous applause -- not something that happens often with a video installation. And this is just the high point in a touring Marclay retrospective, now at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, that supplies plenty of other pleasures and thoughts at nearly the same pitch.

Marclay, an American raised in Geneva and now based in New York, trained as a visual artist and has worked as a prominent avant-garde musician. But the art in this first museum survey of his work, organized by Russell Ferguson of UCLA's Hammer Museum, involves the blending of both roles.

The sound in "Video Quartet" matters as much as its visuals. It gives them added punch, of course -- how rousing would Hendrix be without the noise his guitar makes? But, amazingly, it also manages to work as calming counterpoint to them. Shut your eyes in Marclay's installation, and without the chaos of his fleeting images you find yourself in a sound world that's crisp and clean and fully ordered. As a soprano's trill leads to clashing cymbals that give way to a layering of guitar chords, with gunshots and slamming doors thrown in for sonic punctuation, you'd swear that you were listening to a carefully conceived modernist symphony, in an "avant-garde" genre that's so familiar it seems almost traditional.

A polyphony of image stills leaves us feeling giddy, like a movie trailer for the newest wild ride with Indiana Jones. But a kaleidoscope of layered sounds can feel like business as usual -- a Bach fugue or Beethoven scherzo, brought into the modern world.

And thanks to Marclay's virtuoso work with both senses at once, his soundtrack becomes full of low-art verve once you see the shots that gave it birth. His visual collage gets added weight because of the substantial symphony it also creates. The seamless blending of the two makes "Video Quartet" one of those rare artworks whose payoff never seems to end.

Another video piece by Marclay, called "Guitar Drag," at first seems vaguely comic. A single monitor shows us Marclay tying an electric guitar -- a classic Fender Stratocaster, red and white, in mint condition -- to a stout rope, whose other end is anchored to a pickup truck that's got an amplifier sitting on its bed. Marclay wires the guitar to the amp, turns both on high, gets in the truck, then takes off down a rural road and through the scruffy landscape all around it. For 14 minutes we watch, and hear, what happens when Fender meets asphalt, or gravel, or high grass, in a kind of random suite of found-art power chords.

The heaviest death metal seems positively cheerful compared with Marclay's composition. In a witty riff on the whole macho-man guitarist thing, 4/4 time gets traded for 4-by-4 noise. If you earn your rocker stripes by smashing a guitar onstage, how much better to drag it from a truck with Texas plates?

But then, as the elegant instrument first loses its sheen, then begins to splinter and finally sheds the last of its strings, it's hard to keep a smile on. The sound caught by the guitar's surviving pickups eventually becomes a featureless roar and a sense of tragedy sets in -- of potential wasted, of an unnecessary, early end. You hardly need to know that Marclay made the work in response to the lynching death of James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged along a Texas road until his body fell apart. You feel it as you watch the piece.

Most of Marclay's other works have rather gentler conceits.

A piece called "Tape Fall" consists of an old reel-to-reel tape player perched at the top of a tall ladder. It plays a long recording of the sound of dripping water -- but there's no pick-up spool, so the magnetic tape, once played, falls into a hopeless tangle on the floor below. Falling water becomes falling tape, never to be heard a second time. The Greek thinker Heraclitus, commenting on the inevitable flux of life, famously said that "you can't step in the same river twice." Or hear it flow again, Marclay might add, despite the effort of recording it.

A piece called "Dictators" consists of a grid of 25 album covers from old classical records. Every one of them depicts a lone, heroic conductor, always male and always prominently named, photographed in the throes of manhandling an orchestra. It's hung alongside "Incognita," a similar grid of record covers. Except all the albums in "Incognita" depict beautiful, unnamed girls, not one of whom has the least connection to the Muzak on the disc inside. Our experience of instrumental music, that archetypally "abstract" art form, turns out to be tightly bound up with the images we use to help it sell.

"Virtuoso" and "Drumkit," both seen in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, are about the visual appeal of fine musical instruments, here given a surreal twist. "Virtuoso" is nothing more than an exquisitely crafted accordion, with mother-of-pearl keys, fancy chrome fittings -- and a bellows special-ordered by the artist to be 25 feet long. "Drumkit" is precisely what its title says it is -- except that the kit's snare drums and cymbals, though perfectly functional, are perched on stands that reach a good 15 feet up. These unplayable instruments, if bigger than ever before, also end up quieter than any of their normal kin. They rely so purely on their seductive forms that music has been bred out of them.

It's true that there's a sense, with some of these pieces, that we're in the presence of clever -- if often very clever -- artistic one-liners. But maybe it's better to think of Marclay's minor works as single elements in an ongoing piece that consists of almost everything he's ever made.

They are notes and phrases and snatches of tune, sometimes entire movements, in a larger composition.

The Christian Marclay exhibition is at the Barbican Art Gallery in London through May 2. Visit www.barbican.org.uk.

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