Artist as Musician, and the Other Way Around
Source:the New York Times Author:Karen Rosenberg Date: 2008-09-03 Size:
Today it is not unusual for artists to moonlight as rock stars (hello, Martin Creed) or for musicians (Kim Gordon) to dabble in the gallery world.


John Lennon in Yoko Ono’s "Film No. 5 (Smile)" (1968)

Today it is not unusual for artists to moonlight as rock stars (hello, Martin Creed) or for musicians (Kim Gordon) to dabble in the gallery world. This phenomenon can be traced back to the 1960s, when being creative meant doing a little bit of everything (substances included). The lines dividing art, music and film were blurry enough to allow Laurie Anderson, Bruce Nauman and Yoko Ono, among others, to shift from object making to performance and back again.

"Looking at Music," at the Museum of Modern Art, a recently opened exhibition of about 40 works from the museum’s collection, emphasizes the experimental nature of the late 1960s and early ’70s. As its curator, Barbara London, writes, "It seemed as though every artist of this time was in a band."

The show, which includes audio recordings and small-press publications alongside more conventional mediums, is accompanied by an extensive film and video program in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters. Attending the screenings is probably the best way to get a sense of the decade’s innovations (unless you happened to be there the first time around), but scene-setting ephemera and a few seminal works have been installed in the Modern’s second-floor media galleries.

Viewers are greeted by the beatific face of John Lennon, in Yoko Ono’s "Film No. 5 (Smile)" (1968), a 51-minute record of Lennon’s facial expressions. Nearby is a selection of works on paper by other artists associated with the Fluxus movement: constellationlike scores by John Cage, collage drawings by Ray Johnson. Among the most beautiful are two "Smoke Drawings" by Otto Piene, in which the artist creates ripplelike patterns from dots of soot.

In an untitled work by Mr. Piene and Nam June Paik, a television set covered with plastic pearls emits a single line of light — the visual equivalent of Paik’s one-note musical performances. Another crowd pleaser in this section of the show is Laurie Anderson’s "Self-Playing Violin," which plays classical music through a tiny, hidden speaker.

This instrument figured in Ms. Anderson’s famous performance "Duets on Ice" (1977), which is also documented in the exhibition. In this piece, conducted in New York and other cities, she played the violin while wearing a pair of ice skates that had been frozen into a block of ice. The performance continued until the ice had melted. In a handwritten text on display, Ms. Anderson notes, "Between songs, I talked to passers-by about the parallels between skating and violin playing: balance; blades over a surface; simultaneity."



Laurie Anderson

Others achieved a similar physicalization of sound by taking advantage of new technology. The Bell Laboratories engineer Billy Klüver collaborated with 10 artists in the landmark performance series "9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering," held at the 69th Regiment Armory in 1966. "Looking at Music" includes a grainy film reconstruction of one of the "9 Evenings" performances ("Vehicle" by Lucinda Childs). In the piece sound is generated by the interaction of a sonar system with objects including a plexiglass cube.

The importance of the Portapak, a hand-held video camera introduced in 1967, is difficult to overestimate. Suddenly artists had a cheaper and easier-to-use alternative to film, and the results could be seen instantly.

Bruce Nauman’s "Lip Sync" (1969) is perhaps the show’s best example of an artist exploiting the "feedback loop" of video. The hourlong piece shows Mr. Nauman, wearing earmuff headphones, speaking the title phrase over and over in front of a stationary camera. He is trying to synchronize his speech with the sound coming through the headphones, but an occasional delay makes it appear as though he is mouthing the words. Mr. Nauman has said he was inspired by the percussive spoken-word arrangements of the musician Steve Reich (who is also featured in "Looking at Music").

In another influential video, "Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy" (1972), the artist Joan Jonas explores the hall-of-mirrors aspect of the new medium. Her mask-wearing alter ego, Organic Honey, performs a series of ritualistic actions that incorporate closed-circuit video monitors.

The same concepts — repetition, dissociation, the creation of otherworldly personas — are showcased in a selection of music videos made before the advent of MTV. With varying degrees of sophistication, the artists — the solo performers David Bowie and Captain Beefheart as well as groups like Devo and the Residents — demonstrate an awareness of the music video as both a live event and a recording.

Viewers who appreciate the cognitive dissonance produced by the sight of Mr. Bowie’s "Space Oddity" at the Modern might enjoy the film screening "Art and Music in Popular Culture," scheduled for Sept. 6 and 14. The hourlong event includes collaborations between Andy Warhol and the Cars, and Tony Oursler and Sonic Youth, as well as works by the younger artist-musicians Cory Arcangel and Aida Ruilova.

[Editor] Mark Lee