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Christian Marclay Solo Exhibition White Cube Bermondsey
"Actions: Fwash Splooch Fwooo Sploosh Shasht (No.1)", 2014Photography Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Courtesy White Cube

Christian Marclay: the art of sound

The Swiss avant garde godhead is closing his most incredible art show to date: an exploration of sound in all its forms. Dazed's visual arts editor meets him at his gallery

Whoosh. Swish. Splaf. Plop. At Christian Marclay’s exhibition at White Cube in Bermondsey, closing next weekend, words are popping and flying all over the place. These onomatopoeic terms fall from the ceiling, cluster on walls, splodge and splat on canvases and screen prints. Aside from a central video work of the artist playing with abandoned beer and wine glasses, this is the noisiest exhibition without sound you’ll ever see.

Music, noise, rhythm and everything in between has been a part of Marclay’s practice from an early age. The artist was raised in Switzerland but went to Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and moved to NYC in 1978 for an exchange programme with Cooper Union. He was strongly influenced by the music-art crossover exploding in the city at the time, via people such as Dan Graham and Laurie Anderson. He played in a band, Mon Ton Son, among other projects. In Marclay’s artwork, his interest in music manifested in everything from collage works made from found record covers to experimental turntable performances concurrent with the rise of hip hop turntablism. He has hit vinyl and dragged instruments along the ground. “A lot of my music using records is about disrupting the time structure of the record,” he says. “You know, it has a beginning and end and it’s meant to be played that way.” Other pieces gave musicians structures to work around, improvising responses to visual sound collages or other images. “I love that idea of an artwork that has no fixed, tangible reality,” says Marclay from the archive room in the cavernous White Cube gallery. “It’s just this thing.”

Marclay worked for a long time as an artist showing at the Whitney, Barbican and Centre Pompidou before gaining the huge recognition he enjoys today (Newsweek cited him as one of the ten most important artists of today in 2011). Much of that success is due to “The Clock” – the notorious, ever-touring 24-hour film work that won him the Gold Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and took more than three years to make, working for hours every day on Final Cut Pro. The work was an extension of the cut-up film approach he had also used in “Telephones” (1995), “Video Quartet” (2002) and “Crossfire” (2007). In these film works, Marclay ripped apart the history of Hollywood and touched on our collective unconscious, transforming clips from trashy 80s action movies, French arthouse cinema and Technicolor musicals into new rhythmic narratives. “The Clock” took this approach to another, epic level. Synced with real time, every clock, watch and utterance on screen reinforces the time of day in reality. It’s arguably the defining artwork of this century. Yet there is a sense it has become a slight albatross around Marclay’s neck, and his current exhibition in London places him back in the broader context of sound and moving image.

Marclay’s canvases and print works are well represented in the new White Cube show. He worked directly with screen printers to experiment with misusing techniques to create blobs and mistakes and new approaches. There is something innately pleasurable in their bright splats of colour and throwaway, comic-strip typefaces. It’s as if Pollock and Lichtenstein had sex on a tie-dye bedspread.

Also soundless is his new silent animation piece, featured in the White Cube exhibition and made with the help of a strong team of Goldsmiths students, which is one of his most amusing takes on audio. ‘Sound words’ are everywhere, but the noise itself is in our heads. “It’s always been a challenge to describe sound with words,” says Marclay. “It’s such a mistranslation. I did some work around this idea of the limitation of words.”

Marclay undoubtedly likes collaboration. There is a real sense he is engaged with the social aspect of music: he has brought together a number of collaborators who are responding to the current exhibition and performing every weekend throughout its run. Performers include the London Sinfonietta, Thurston Moore, Mica Levi and David Toop. “Music is all about collaboration,” he says. “You find people who are like-minded who you know are going to push (things) and try and find interesting solutions.”

He’s also hooked up with Vinyl Factory,who are pressing limited edition records of the performances throughout the show, within a shipping container in the exhibition space. The result is a room of records-in-progress. “I’ve been fascinated in records for a long time,” says Marclay. “People here can witness the performance, and the recording of the performance direct to lacquer. People will have witnessed the whole process.” Part of the drive for this alternative element was to address the challenge of how an exhibition lives on. “Exhibitions are weird. They get documented with these clinical photographs. Where are the people? It looked like a nuclear plant. The documentation aspect of an exhibition is always the challenge. Regardless of how imperfect those documents are, they��re what remains.”

Marclay takes photographs wherever he goes, collecting snaps of his surroundings around the world. His DIY images of musical notes incorporated into urban signage and architecture, for instance, became “Shuffle”, a deck of visual cards that could be improvised as a musical score. This approach has expanded to his home of seven years, London. He became fascinated with the street drinking culture that is so central to the social fabric of the city. The performance room in his current show is filled with different kinds of discarded beer and wine glasses. He would wake every Saturday morning at 5am before the cleaners had cleared the streets, and discover leftover drinks vessels and film himself kicking, playing, tapping and tinkling the glassware.

“In the US, where drinking is hidden, you have to hide your beer in a paper bag,” he says. “(In London), on a summery evening, it’s really nice to see people after work having their pint of beer. It’s such a ritual. I started seeing these beautiful beer glasses abandoned on the streets. Nobody really notices it because it’s normal. I think what you find on the street on the sidewalk is always indicative of something.” Within this collage-like approach, Marclay resisted the elements of narrative. “I had to constantly kind of fight that temptation to tell a story. There is potential narrative in music, but if there are no lyrics it is very abstract, and I think that’s one of the things I like about it. Music doesn’t have to tell a story.”

Christian Marclay runs until April 12, 2015 at White Cube Bermondsey 

Lead image: Detail from "Actions: Smak Squish Splsh (No.2)" (2013)