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Christian Marclay’s silent din

Charlie McCann listens with her eyes at White Cube

Charlie McCann | February 14th 2015

Christian Marclay’s exhibition at the Bermondsey branch of White Cube reverberates with sound even when it doesn’t. That’s because it turns noises—paint splashing on canvas, a pen tapping a glass—into images. Only one work, “Pub Crawl”, composed of 11 videos projected onto the walls of a long corridor, makes a sound: you watch Marclay stomping on beer cans and you hear the corresponding crunch. But walk into the next room and you are greeted with a silent cacophony. On the walls is a series of canvases on which Marclay has overlaid vibrantly coloured spatters of paint with screen-printed words from comic books: “splat”, “squish”, “plop”, “plof”, “ploosh”, “blub”. And in the other two rooms, you continue to see sound, rather than hear it.

Marclay has always been fascinated by the relationship between the visual and the aural. He began his career as a performance artist in 1980s New York, where he was one of the first DJs outside of hip-hop to use the turntable as an instrument—by using a stylus to pluck a groove the way a plectrum plucks a guitar string. Marclay explored vinyl’s visual potential too. In “Recycled Records” (1980-86) he cut up LPs and glued them back together into different configurations, making audio-visual collages that could still be played, skips and all. For “Body Mix” (1991-92) he exchanged fragments of vinyl for album covers depicting Tina Turner’s legs or the raised arms of a conductor, combining them to make a kind of exquisite corpse.

Since then, Marclay has made his name as a video artist. His best-known work, “The Clock”, which won a Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, is a 24-hour montage of thousands of scenes from film and TV that in some way depict the time: bells clang in “High Noon”, a shirtless Richard Gere walks past an alarm clock that reads 12:05 in “American Gigolo”. “The Clock” isn’t just a film about clocks, it is a clock: Marclay stitched together each scene so that it plays in real time. Viewers spoke of losing, if not track of time, then themselves, trance-like, to the film’s rhythms.

At its dizzying best, Marclay’s new exhibition has a similar effect. “Surround Sounds” is an immersive video installation projected onto all four, six-metre-high walls of a darkened room. To make it, Marclay combed through superhero stories for the sound effects blaring from their pages; he then scanned them and set the comic-strip onomatopoeia in motion. Bright bubbles reading “pop” float up and burst; a barrage of “beeps” and “blips” flickers off and on in magenta, yellow and blue; a swarm of “Zs” buzzes around then disperses; “Zooom!” ricochets off the walls at break-neck speed; a gargantuan “BLAM” explodes in a riot of colour; then, a decrescendo as “Sh”, copied many times over, cascades diagonally down in a blizzard of black-and-white. There’s nothing to hear, of course, except for the whispers of viewers—standing, sitting, lying on the floor—occasionally, and perhaps involuntarily, reading the words aloud.

The animation is fun and often silly: you can't help but chuckle when a “W” and a gaggle of “Os” jockey around like hyper schoolchildren, eventually assembling an orderly line that reads “woooooooo”. But Marclay doesn’t always play it for laughs. Sometimes, perhaps beguiled by the curve of an “S” or the rust-red of an “H”, Marclay repeats letters and words over and over again until they form mesmerising tessellations that fill the massive screens. When he reduces the words to colour and form like this, the colours seem to take on pitch, while the shapes have timbre. It's like listening with your eyes. For a moment, you feel like a synaesthete.

At the exhibition’s core is the absence of sound. At the weekend, that changes: Marclay has invited friends and collaborators, including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Mica Levi, the award-winning composer of the “Under the Skin” score, and the London Sinfonietta, to perform music inspired by his works. He also got the Vinyl Factory to install a vinyl pressing plant at the gallery so recordings of the performances can be made on site. In the Eighties, Marclay was turning vinyl records into works of art; today, he’s turning works of art into sound recordings. He's come full circle.

Christian Marclay is at White Cube Bermondsey in London until April 12th

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