“I don’t distinguish between art and pop culture,” says Christian Marclay, whose work is most often based on music: he sometimes makes objects or installations relating to music, sometimes makes music himself. In San Antonio Marclay has made objects you might call sculptures and installed them in a music store a block down the street from Artpace. For Artpace itself he has produced sounds you might hear in a nightclub, if a particularly knowing and current one. Some artists try to break down the distinction between the art space and the world beyond; Marclay simply ignores it.
The Alamo Music Center occupies a low-rise 1950s-style building with a marquee of lights out front. On an outside wall is a painted ad—a musical stave, and the slogan, “A Musical Education Lasts a Lifetime . . . and Begins Any Time.” Here, among the pianos and other instruments that cram the two large salesrooms, Marclay has installed instruments of his own: in the first room, a drum kit, in the window of the second room, an accordion. Both are real, but obviously altered; at the same time, both are comfortable enough in the store that their oddity may take time to dawn. “They belong in the shop,” says Marclay, “they’re at home there.” For the drum kit Marclay has tuned the height of each drum to the sound it makes. The drum with the deepest tone, the bass, takes its usual anchor position; the floor tom is somewhat higher than normal; two smaller, higher-pitched toms stand too tall for a drummer to play sitting down; and the snare, high hat, and cymbals get progressively closer to the ceiling, ending between twelve and thirteen feet up. Since the pitch of a drum is related to its size, and it is the largest drums that sound the lowest, the instruments get smaller as their stands get higher, giving Marclay’s kit a teetering visual delicacy. In fact, though, these drums are regular instruments, and in all respects except height they follow the conventional arrangement. Only their stands have changed.
The accordion in the display window is also a regular instrument, or was once; now it is fourteen feet long. Marclay found an accordion from the 1960s—a handsome object, in gold, yellow, and mother-of-pearl—and asked an accordion-maker to extend the bellows by splicing in extra sections. The keyboards at either end are as they always were. Arranged in a long, serpentine curve, the accordion looks both real and strange, as if one of the impossible transformations of people and things you might see in a Disney cartoon had somehow jumped into the real world. By pleasant coincidence, this make of accordion carries a name inspired by the giants of classical myth: Titano.
For his installation at Artpace, meanwhile, Marclay scoured San Antonio thrift store to acquire what he calls “an absurd archive”: around 900 vinyl LP’s of Christmas music. These he has sorted into cardboard boxes and set on a V-shaped line of tables; a pair of turntables, a sound system, and cushions on the floor make the room an auditorium. Sequences of the albums’ covers are projected on the wall by VCR’s. At the opening of the show, dj’s from San Antonio (and, briefly, Marclay himself) scratched and mixed a sampling of the albums. This event has been repeated weekly for the duration of the exhibition, with local dj’s visiting ArtPace for an evening of messing with Christmas.
To cherish popular music has traditionally meant being a fan, but “I don’t have fan behavior,” says Marclay, “I have a certain distance from pop music.” He began as a visual artist, and one could easily imagine art precedents for his San Antonio works. His archive of Christmas records, for example, recalls the many Conceptual artists and their heirs who devised strategies of listing and cataloguing. There are three bins of compilation albums (Your Christmas Favorites, 20 Christmas Favorites, A Country Christmas, A Country Style Christmas), five bins ordered alphabetically by artist (from Julie Andrews and Chet Atkins through the Kingston Trio and Stan Kenton to Lawrence Welk and Andy Williams), and bins for international Christmas albums (Christmas in Poland, A Tijuana Christmas), rap Christmas albums (A Very Special Christmas, with a cover by Keith Haring), and more, including three-quarters of a box on The Little Drummer Boy. It is a lunatic collection, and Marclay admits to a certain aversion to the music it stores, “but it’s an amazing cultural artifact.”
The accordion and drums may remind many viewers of the scaled-up commercial objects of Claes Oldenburg, and also perhaps of Oldenburg’s Store (1961), in which the artist ran a New York storefront selling nonfunctional consumer objects—slices of plaster pie, for example. (The Alamo Music Center, with its glowing lights and painted sign, itself recalls Pop art.) But Marclay’s distortions of scale are more selective, and pay more respect to the objects’ original integrity. For him a closer analogy is a kind of gentle surrealism—these are things that seem normal but are not. The Christmas records, similarly, are everyday schlock, whose weirdness is revealed by their collection en masse, and by their combination with dj technology—an appropriative, inventive, intellectually abrasive form of music-making, radically opposed to a music of soothing formulae. In any case, these tracings of aesthetic ancestries seem less than crucial to Marclay, who asks, “Is it art or not? I don’t care. What interests me is a twisted moment.”
All quotations of Christian Marclay are from conversations with the author in December 1999.