In dreams, a basement is the space of the primal, the collective unconscious. But in a house as polished and perfectly proportioned as Philip Johnson’s Kreeger residence — now the Kreeger Museum — it makes perfect sense that even the weltering mess of stuff that lurks in every basement should be aestheticized.
So, if you go to the lower level of the Kreeger, you’ll find basement junk on display. It’s strewn all over the room: a boiler; a dehumidifier from the 1960s; a wastebasket full of beer cans; even Mr. Kreeger’s shoe polisher, nestled in a filing cabinet. It’s a mess but an artistic mess: Each object has been given space, room to be walked around and contemplated.
More to the point, it has been given a voice. “Marlin Underground,” the installation that artist Dan Steinhilber has set up (through Dec. 29), is less about the objects than the sounds they make. The room hums with a soundtrack that drifts in and out of rhythmic cohesiveness — was that a bass riff? — and that turns out to be comprised of the sounds of the objects. Each of the 48 items has been recorded — the click of a beer can, the dark thunk of a boiler — and then wired to speakers so that every object functions as its own speaker cone, vibrating to enable its sound to be heard, down to the persistent whine of the fluorescent light overhead.
Root around a basement and you might stumble over all kinds of vintage junk. Steinhilber has found not only a bunch of objects from the mid-20th century, but an artistic approach from the same period. Exploring the sounds made by found objects, reclaiming unimportant sounds as a focus of musical perception: These tropes of the musical avant-garde were being explored by many musicians at the time the stuff in “Marlin Underground” was new — notably John Cage, whose work was being celebrated upstairs at the Kreeger (and all over Washington) as Steinhilber was putting finishing touches on the installation in the basement.
Each artist has a right to say what kind of artist he is. As a work of music, “Marlin Underground” represents oft-trodden terrain, but as a work of sculpture, it has a certain freshness. Its sound world, certainly, has a more direct and indie vibe than many of the Cage scores for found objects heard in last week’s Cage Centennial Festival. If you doubt that Cage was a highbrow, listen to the intricacy of his pieces against the cheerful, exuberant bluntness of Steinhilber’s. But Cage, as a musician, was challenging the boundaries of performance when he set up percussionists at various spaces in a room to create a fluid sound world that each listener experienced differently. When Steinhilber, as a sculptor, does something similar in the Kreeger basement, he’s challenging the limits of space, the boundaries of objects.
Too, “Marlin Underground” is free of music’s time limits: It’s an installation, so you can experience it for as long as you choose rather than on the performer’s time, and aware of a beginning, middle and end.
It’s also an allegory of the workings of an artist’s mind: an archetypal basement workshop, where at the big plywood table that dominates the room, hooked up to all the objects with snaking black wires, the project being made is art. Steinhilber’s computer controls the sounds, while the artist’s backpack lies nearby, as if he’d just stepped out. In fact, he will be back; there may be some other objects, such as a trash can full of golf clubs, to be wired up.
The only editorializing comes from three large fish mounted on the walls, surveying the whole with a kind of dismay, arcing as if to get away, pinned in air they can’t breathe, and helplessly mute. They don’t, Steinhilber said, have anything to say.
Another archetype, this one an untitled Steinhilber piece from last year, occupies the adjacent room: a huge, breathing, sprawling object filling the whole space like a growth. It’s a membrane of white plastic hooked up to a couple of industrial fans, which fill it with air and keep it inflated. Step inside — you’re supposed to enter, though there’s no door and you have to lift the membrane against the wall and hurry in so it doesn’t deflate — and you’re in the belly of the beast, a child’s party the morning after, Aladdin’s cave — some magical, fictive, underground, underwater space. The billowing plastic creates rooms big enough to walk around in and is strewn with bright bits of plastic bags festooning the walls like seaweed, stained glass and torn-down streamers or scattering across the floor like confetti.
It’s a magic playhouse, a secret — no one can see you’re in there — with a frisson of danger: Switch off the fan and the whole thing will collapse on your head. There’s a safe zone by the window; first exhibited in Richmond, the piece was adapted for the Kreeger to incorporate a window. The view of trees and lawn, playing off the green and blue tones of the plastic, becomes the sign of a safe haven or secret garden, a refuge when the rest of it comes down. In its antic zany embrace, it’s a more exuberant work than “Marlin Underground” — but in the genre of sound installation, Steinhilber may well have more to say. Stay tuned.
runs through Dec. 29 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW. Call 202-337-3050 or go to www.kreegermuseum.org.