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Christian Marclay, White Cube | reviews, news & interviews

Christian Marclay, White Cube

Christian Marclay, White Cube

Can the author of the best artist's video ever made maintain that level of excellence?

Actions: Smak Squish Splsh (No.2) 2013 by Christian MarclayPhotos by George Darrell

Christian Marclay is best known as the author of Video Quartet, 2002 the most exciting artist’s video ever made. The four-screen extravaganza juxtaposes more than 700 clips from Hollywood movies of people singing, dancing and playing instruments not to mention screaming, whistling or smashing crockery. Formally tight, it starts with an orchestra tuning up and, after a glorious crescendo of brass bands, Scottish pipers and Hendrix guitar riffs, ends with a door slamming shut followed by blissful silence.

Can the former DJ hope to maintain this level of excellence? At White Cube Bermondsey Marclay has installed Surround Sound (pictured below), his latest video exploration of the relationship between sound and image. It is, however, completely silent. Scanned from dozens of comics, words like THUNK, CRACK, BOOM, BAM and KLANK leap, march and spin round the space in a dizzying evocation of the sounds made by comic strip superheroes.

TIC, TIC, TIC, TIC progresses round the periphery as though measuring space and time. M, M, M , M travels in the opposite direction like a soothing band of contentment before expanding to take over all four walls. THUD crashes continually from ceiling to floor to land with a sickening shudder; POP dances across the walls like champagne bubbles fizzing in a glass; and CRACK splits apart, while CRASH endures a multiple pile-up in one corner. The silence in the darkened room is deafening; you emerge reeling from the noises playing inside your head.

Onomatopoeia is also the name of the game in a series of paintings (main picture and right Actions: Smak Squish Splsh (No.2) 2013) where Abstract Expressionism meets Pop Art in an unholy alliance of contrasting styles. Gestural play – Pollock-like splatters and de Kooningesque swathes of colour – forms the backdrop for silk-screened words like SPLASH, SQUISH and SPLOOSH that refer to the sound of paint slurping onto canvas. Graphic swirls and splatters emulate the drama of Hokusai’s wave and Ben Day dots invoke the ghost of Roy Lichtenstein.

The aim, I guess, is to suggest the effort invested in each picture; but like too many crescendoes, the verbal concatenation creates visual confusion. Lacking the clarity of a Japanese print, the sparkling economy of Lichtenstein’s Pop paintings or the energy of Pollock’s drips, the results tend to be muddy and sluggish. Instead of a vibrant, OK Corral type stand-off between warring genres, the upper and lower layers get into a visual tangle and steal one another’s thunder. The works on paper, which feature a single, explosive WOOSH, PLOP or SPLAT, are more concise, more dynamic and far more successful.

Projected along the corridor at floor level, 11 videos follow Marclay on early morning walks around the East End as he trawls the streets for evidence of the previous night’s drinking. At last we have actual sound – a beer can crunching underfoot, a champagne bottle rolling over cobbles or a wineglass being tapped tunefully. The satisfying murmur of tinkling, clanking, scrunching and squelching follows you round as you make your way into the South Gallery where a thousand glasses of all shapes and sizes are arranged on shelves.

These were some of the instruments used by the London Sinfonietta to play John Butcher’s Good Liquor Caused my Heart for to Sing. Each weekend there's a programme of live music which includes students from the Royal College and University of the Arts, London restaging various Fluxus happenings. The performances are being recorded live and the records pressed in situ by the Vinyl Factory, whose equipment is being treated with the reverence normally accorded an art installation. The sleeves are silk screened on the spot by printers from London’s Coriander Studio so the whole process can be witnessed – from live performance to recorded package – with the records available for the public to buy. Vinyl is high art – its official – and the Dalston trendies are loving it.

But apart from the gimmickry and the pleasant sounds of tuneful tinkling, the exhibition provokes an awareness of the paucity of language compared with the complexity and subtlety of sound. Words like SLUP, SPLOOSH and WOOSH don’t come anywhere near to describing the satisfaction of squashing a beer can underfoot or hearing a wineglass sing.

POP dances across the walls like champagne bubbles fizzing in a glass, while CRASH endures a multiple pile-up in one corner

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