Sound and Vision
Will the art world’s current infatuation with music provide fresh perpectives or is it just the whim of ageing curatorial directors?
What connects the following?
1. ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967’, which opened last week at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
2. Jerome Bel’s performance ‘The Show Must Go On’ at the Lyon Opera, commissioned as part of the Lyon Biennial which opened in September, and featuring around a dozen dancers enacting the lyrics to a playlist of songs ranging from ‘Into Your Arms’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On (Love Theme from “Titanic”)’.
3. Sound & Vision by Luca Beatrice and Alberto Campo; a book released this September that, according to the press release, ‘observes the fertile mixing of photography, painting, music and video, a node of interdisciplinary connections that has slowly become a major influence in the historical development of both pop music and visual arts’.
4. PERFORMA 07, the second installment of the New York performance art biennial which begins at the end of this month, and includes amongst its manifold performances Daria Martin and experimental harpist Zeena Parkins, a gospel and jazz-scored ‘Southern-style religious revival’-meets-experimental writing jam by Adam Pendelton, noise-rock group Japanther, Californian band My Barbarian, and ‘White Noise II’, an exhibition of work and performance by sound artists.
5. A new John Baldessari monograph entitled ‘Music’ – the press blurb says it explores ‘the centrality of music in his oeuvre’.
6. The announcement of ‘Abstract Rhythms: Paul Klee and Devendra Banhart’, a forthcoming exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ‘exploring the relationship between music and visual art’, featuring the work of Klee alongside that of pin-up ‘freak-folk’ musician Banhart.
7. The book ‘New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978–88’, published this summer as an accompaniment to the Soul Jazz Records eponymous compilation series.
8. Slater Bradley’s exhibition ‘The Unreleased Factory’ currently at Max Wigram Gallery, London; photographs of Bradley’s alter ego Benjamin Brock posing as, amongst others, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and Ian Curtis; the show’s title a conscious nod to Warhol’s Factory and influential Manchester record label Factory.
9. Radiohead’s announcement this month that their new album, In Rainbows, would be available on a pay-what-you-like, ‘honesty box’, basis.
10. All over the newspapers, magazines, radio and television in the UK: Joy Division, Joy Division, Joy Division.
This weekend, Anton Corbijn’s film Control hits UK cinema screens. As this biopic of tragic post-Punk icon and Joy Division singer Ian Curtis racks up the column inches and causes a tidal wave of reissued and repackaged albums you’ve already got (it seems rock music is the new arm of the heritage industry), so too has the usual constant background hum of contemporary art exhibitions/books/events about music been turned right up to eleven.
Whether any of the exhibitions and books mentioned above – not least Dominic Molon’s huge art and rock survey show ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ which features artworks including Andy Warhol’s ‘Screen Tests’ portraits of the Velvet Underground, Raymond Pettibon’s drawings for the West Coast punk label SST, ephemera from Cosey Fanni Tutti chronicling her involvement in Throbbing Gristle, and images by Scott King relating to (here he is again) Ian Curtis – provide fresh perspectives on art’s love affair with music remains to be seen, and it’s not for me to speculate on their worth here. Nor will I repeat any of the arguments I’ve put forward in the pages of frieze magazine before regarding art’s predominant obsession with the sociological epiphenomena of mainstream (and mostly white, male) Anglo-American pop subcultures.
However, the fact of this critical mass of music-oriented shows and books should be noted. With paeans to Curtis/Joy Division and tributes to the late Factory Records impresario Anthony H. Wilson loud in our ears this month, they raise curious questions. As pop music dematerializes and devolves from an object-oriented experience (records, CDs) into the ether (digital downloads), its audiences are also having to cope with the inevitability of history and ageing – the very ideological antithesis of the live-fast-die-young mythopoeia of rock ‘n’ roll. Is the groundswell of art/music interest in the visual arts formed of nostalgia for the traditional structures of music consumption and hagiographies of its heroes whose moves and poses are now aped by every new bad boy artist who appears on the block? Is it an almost reactionary refusal to let go of the idea of music as object-commodity? Is it just the manifestation of the fact that all those who formed the audiences for the Velvets, Black Flag or Throbbing Gristle back in the day are now also not only the CEOs of record companies today but the curatorial directors of museums and heads of publishing houses? Or, at best, is it the understanding that in its very disembodied essence, music – much better than visual art – is a means to understanding the dematerialized artwork and the communities it creates?