One of Whitehot Magazine's favorite shows of 2015:
Christian Marclay, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, NY
By SPENCER EVERETT, DEC. 2015
The first thing you see is a series of action paintings—yes, drips and splatters, audacious brush strokes and spray paint streaks that look like they’re straight from the can. Each painting dedicates itself to the performance of a single word: Pffssstt, for instance, is splayed across the white in a single gesture, in the manner of the term’s implications and the manner of its spoken performance. This series of paintings demonstrates an impressive tonal range despite the constraints of the series: The colors sing, and their arcs are playful and lyric while resisting sentimentality. The artist— that is, the artist as painter, and the painter as art’s most historically prototypical figure— is present. But what situates this work outside the mythical (and mystified) arena of abstract gesture is, strangely, the visual’s nemesis if not its rival in performative abstraction: the word. These paintings isolate words as they aspire to break through their medium and become animated.
Christian Marclay’s Surround Sounds is an experiment in the emotive capacity of that rarified and exceptional species of word, the onomatopoeia. The paintings “zip” and “swoosh” and “blam” to the full extent of their implications, as words that boldly essentialize and foreclose on the meaning of the painterly mark. The words—given new voice through visual form—are not revised so much as their guttural significations are reinforced. The onomatopoeia is celebrated here as language’s ultimate tool for expressing a physicality divorced from thought.
The paintings serve as a sort of preamble to the synchronized video installation tucked into a black cube at the back of the gallery. There, the show and its cadre of words take wing. “Zip,” “Swoosh,” “Boom—“ it’s possible that the entire gamut of onomatopoeias, at least all those most familiar to us, are appropriated here as living projections inscribed on the four black walls. They dance across them in the manner fitting to each word: that is, according to the directives of the sounds they describe as well as the actions those sounds suggest. The paintings introduce us to the word as action, while the video couples this quality with another: that of words in action, enlivened by the temporal medium.
From the minute you see the word “rumble” rise slowly and convulsively from the bottom of the screen like an earthquake ascending from the rubble it’s generated, you can expect the “booms” to boom and the beeps to beep. The understated treatment of the word “tic toc,” as it crosses only the bottom margins of the walls one painstaking iteration at a time, slyly references Marclay’s Clock (2010). Small and humble, “tic toc” is as an ironic counterpoint to the outrageous publicity and acclaim garnered by that former project. “Twang” shudders like a string.
Each word is given a stage—sometimes shared—to execute its essential performance, and their life feels driven by a learned rationale we usually take for granted. I’m pressed to ask myself: Why, when a thousand “beeps” swarm the screen, does each word’s smallness, its instantaneous appearance and disappearance, feel so fitting, so evidently appropriate? Or, why do I struggle to describe the appearance of the beeps without resorting to some of its closest counterparts: that the beeps pop, the beeps blink, the beeps… become appropriately difficult to describe. Augmenting the language with yet more language, an already competent description with yet more description, becomes increasingly superfluous, so that a room filled with animated words becomes a space that invalidates their discursive extension into other environments. As such, the installation renders the viewer unable to leave with the indexes of its existence fully intact, a sort of “no photography” sign internalized and enforced by the subject matter itself.
Each word varies in its impact and takes on a distinct character and ethos. It might be said that the most poignant of these word performances can be measured by their humor: While some displays are disorienting in their total use of the space and the busy conjunction of otherwise distinct word-performances, others are hilarious in their sobriety and discipline. When the word THOOM, for instance, repeatedly hammers itself into the floor, its literalness and bare stupidity made several viewers laugh (including me). It’s like we all arrived in Chelsea for the day, anticipating nuance, only to have our fine-tuned scales smashed to pieces with a sledgehammer. At any rate, the video work may be seen as a compendium of aesthetically gorgeous and meticulously arranged words that perform equally well as formal templates for bold colors and lines, similar to the use of numbers in some of Jasper John’s most canonical paintings.
But the words still exist as references to excitement and adventure, to heroes and villains. Surround Sound reminds the viewer that such a world of wonderment is usually a throw-back, if not an explicit nostalgia. This territory feels unequivocally vintage, as Marclay’s material is sourced from comic books and their environment made to feel like an 80s video game arcade. The words refurbish the vitality of youth, and especially boyish revelry, for the present. As the paintings reference their Ab-Ex precursors, the video installation in particular references Ab-Ex’s development into the Pop milieu of Roy Lichtenstein. And just like Lichtenstein’s most notable forays into the comic book world, this show centers on the aggressive undercurrents closely associated with male adolescent fantasy, of boyhood indoctrination into the violence of culture at large. But unlike Lichtenstein, whose blams and whams maintain their context and scene, Marclay only implies their spectacular sources.
Alongside all these no-holds-barred attempts to dazzle and entertain, to demonstrate coarse expediency, lies the show’s loudest and most determined presence: the absence of sound. Onomatopoeias, of course, are exceptional because they’re not figured as subjective speech acts exactly, but as subjective imitations of the objective physical constitution of sound in the first order. At the moment of their synchronic iteration, they’re sounds made subjective and interpretive by spoken or written articulation. In other words, onomatopoeias are a shorthand tool for presenting sonic data as indiscernible from the event-in-itself. But nobody is here to speak, and the theatricality of the words in gesture obfuscates their status as written artifact. Made silent, therefore, they’re a record of their own failure to traverse these semiotic boundaries. Similarly vacated of context, the words in video cannot release the words from their essential parameters any more than the canvases.
As representatives of linguistic expression at its most positive and ambitious, onomatopoeias mean to perform, to be the action, or to at least inhabit a moment that cannot distinguish them from the action they’re usually destined to merely announce. And so, when words themselves are the event we’ve come to see, divorced of referent and devoid of cause, we necessarily stand in the space of language’s inability to speak for itself. If these words only followed close at an event’s heels, as their echo, we’d be able to think of the gestures in Marclay’s project as language acts at the speed of sound, of sound as the marker of a phenomenon reaching the ear. This speed, the speed of words at their most nimble and alert, would still not be fast enough to pass the word through the threshold of mimesis and into the realm of physical action. Although Surround Sound falls in line with Marclay’s now-signature procedures—that is, formally isolating samples and recontextualizing them—he distinguishes himself here by simply being quiet.
But it’s not, after all, so different: just as earlier works like Video Quartet (2002) exploit the intersections of sound and sight, this show does the same by negating, though not exactly eliminating, the sounds we expect to hear. When the word’s context is reduced strictly to the movements they suggest across abstract space, we arrive at a new comment in a very old conversation: Marclay is wrestling with classic anxieties regarding the word’s ability to literally matter. Consider, for instance, Hamlet’s powerlessness to act, what with a body filled only with words: “their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” Or consider the poet W.H. Auden’s cynicism, compacted into a phrase that came to define his entire career: “poetry does nothing.” And hence Marclay’s process—ironically expressed by a type of word through which sound is most trenchantly associated—produces a silence that figures the word’s absolute inability to act, while the name of action is retained in its place. Finally, Marclay asserts that the onomatopoeia in isolate is the prime subject for figuring the elementary quietude of the written word, just as the abstract mark, as in the paintings, figures the quietude of any visual appearance made in itself.
Despite any of these complications, Marclay has gained his status not only through deft thinking, but as an entertainer whose work has always specifically figured an audience. And so it shouldn’t be left unsaid that this show is grounded in a contagious energy I can only describe as fun. WM
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Spencer Everett is a poet and writer based in Brooklyn. He was a 2014 resident at the Millay Colony for the Arts and a recipient of a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation grant. He teaches composition and poetry at Brooklyn College.