In the large, wood-floored, echoing gallery, the bell-like white noise of continuously trickling water is decidedly at odds with the bright, antiseptic surroundings. The sound issues from a reel-to-reel tape recorder perched high on a wooden ladder that joins the floor to the 14-foot ceiling. From the recorder a constant stream of fine brown tape snakes down to the floor, sinuously folding itself into an ever-growing shiny heap behind the ladder.
This is "Tape Fall," part of a large installation by avant-garde musician, sculptor and performance artist Christian Marclay, which opened at the Hirshhorn Museum June 27 as the most recent of the ongoing "Directions" series of solo exhibits by contemporary artists. And it's the most interesting thing in the show.
Marclay is essentially a postmodern conceptualist in the mold of Haim Steinbach and others of New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art crowd, and his graphic and sculptural endeavors are intimately tied to his musical interests. But you will be forgiven for believing you've walked into some sort of recording industry museum, or perhaps a novelty shop for record buffs. More a collection of separate pieces than one integrated idea, this installation seems intended to function as a sort of walk through the mind of its patently obsessive creator.
Everything but the tape recorder piece is related to the age of the phonographic record: There are suitcases with speakers set into them, and a giant clear vinyl sheet of pressed but untrimmed recordings. There is an antique side table inset with 12-inch speakers, and a glass-topped case full of colorful collages constructed of cut up and reassembled albums. On the floor are five cubes made from melted and compacted records, reminiscent of John Chamberlain's compacted car-part sculptures of the early 1960s, and there is a large beeswax candle cast from the interior of an old Victrola horn. (Just so there's no confusion about that, the horn itself sits nearby.)
There are allusions to the work of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, both of whom evidently made quite an impression on this young artist, despite the fact that they had pretty well summed up the conceptual possibilities of mass-produced objects some 50 years before he was born. The most obvious of these homages is an old wooden door in which Marclay has cut violin "f"-holes, a direct reference to Man Ray's famous "Le Violon d'Ingres." But the artist also bows to the work of such trendy art stars as Sherrie Levine and Sarah Charlesworth. You know, the popular- commercial-product-as-signifier-and-icon-of- the-postmodern-age gang. The folks who take photographs of photographs and "appropriate" magazine advertisements.
Marclay takes old album covers and collages them to form new designs, with the occasional word or non sequitur highlighted -- just to make you wonder why it's there. There's a crucifix constructed of speakers, and an arrangement of photographs of the mouths of the rich and famous, just as a divertissement. If you look hard you might recognize the open maws of John Lennon, Alfred Hitchcock and others, some of whom would be better off for a visit to the dentist. There is, however, no music to be heard. Only the tape of the water. Supposedly something profound is implicit in all of this. Wait a minute... . Yes, by George! It's all about the absence of the music that can be heard only when records are played on a phonograph.
There are, I'm sure, other associations to be inferred from the choice of materials, such as they are. In the essay for the catalogue, assistant curator Amanda Cruz writes, "Because of the fragility of their surfaces and because every nick can be heard when played, records must be carefully tended: kept clean and stored in a dry, cool place. They are becoming increasingly rare commodities and can be fetishes for those who resist new technology. Marclay exploits these associations in his record-objects."
All of which is mildly interesting, if not pretty obvious. But after a while you can't help but get the impression that if you had an obsession, say, with ashtrays -- which are surely just as valid as icons signifying the passing of a 20th-century American phenomenon -- you could presumably be invited by the Hirshhorn to mount an exhibit, provided you could come up with enough different ashtrays and ways to display them. It might even be more interesting.
Directions -- Christian Marclay, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, through Sept. 30.