Christian Marclay: Video Quartet
Nasher Museum of Art
Through July 26 (closed for Independence Day)

(**Please note: Due to a technical error, a star rating was inadvertently assigned to this show in the initial online version of this review. The Indy currently only assigns star ratings to film and theater reviews. We have since removed the star rating and apologize for the error.)

Christian Marclay is a visual artist whose subject is sound. This is probably worth repeating. Christian Marclay is a visual artist whose subject is sound. Marclay’s work is an ongoing investigation of the traces, imprints and objects left in the wake of music and sound production. The absurdity of this endeavor is certainly not lost on Marclay, who seems energized by his own paradoxical pursuit of the inherent disconnect in the physical/ visual/ symbolic manifestation of something as intangible as sound. For Marclay, it’s as if objects that need to be played in order to deliver soundmusical notation, CDs or record albums, reels of audiotape, video and filmpossess a certain hidden power in the form of a secretor secret code.

One of Marclay’s epic attempts to unlock such a code is Video Quartet (2002), currently on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke. A four-channel video projection, the work is a compendium of clips from feature films that contain musical numbers and distinctive ambient sound elements. The work evolves in waves of shifting thematic subsetsfingers tripping upon piano keys, stringed instruments coaxed and plucked into swells and pizzicato riffs, rhythmic sections built from drum solos, tap dances and car crashes. The very size of the projectionfour contiguous screens, 8 feet tall by 40 feet longmakes it virtually impossible to take in all of the visual and sonic information being presented at once. But the piece has been culled and edited with such clarity of intention that it’s almost shocking how congruent the experience of viewing it indeed is. This is a piece you can watch again and again, with ever-increasing returns on your investment.

In its layering of multiple sound sources, Video Quartet might initially seem to have its roots in the found sounds and randomized compositions of John Cage, but the association is limited. Marclay spent the better part of a year editing over 700 film clips for this work. And while the score of Video Quartet consists of the quadruple layering of pre-existing sound sources, the piece unfolds with the beautifully honed dynamics of an orchestral symphony, replete with lush harmonies, delicate pianissimo moments and explosive percussive swells. No chance operations here.

Video Quartet is an onslaught of images familiar and strange. Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca hums along to “As Time Goes By.” Cockroaches rattle and scatter across piano keys. That little kid in Close Encounters taps out John Williams’ alien theme song on a toy xylophone. A man opens a bass guitar case and reveals a naked woman inside. Jack Nicholson sits pensively at a piano in Five Easy Pieces. There’s a feeling of déjà vu in Video Quartet, an unnerving, undermining sense of familiarity. This is not merely because many of us will recognize moments from movies we’ve seen. Marclay’s multiple screens in some way parallel the way we process visual and sound information. When we watch a given cinematic imageFred Astaire tap dancing, for exampleisn’t it also immediately associated in our brains with every other image of tap dancing we’ve ever seen? We simultaneously parse that same image of Fred for other associations: black-and-white films, tuxedos, music from the 1930s, every rhythmic pattern we’ve ever been exposed to, romantic comedies, the kinesthetic experience of our own bodies in motion, and on and on. Video Quartet may be as easily assimilated as it is partly because it resonates with the truth of how we receive and store information. Video Quartet also lays bare a kind of cultural infrastructure, a task that seems to have been taken up by another familiar visual database: YouTube. (For the record, YouTube didn’t come into existence until 2005, three years after Marclay completed Video Quartet. The recent decentralized mourning of Michael Jackson via Internet sites such as YouTube carries parallels with the archival, memorial qualities at work in Video Quartet.)

In grouping like sequences with like, something surprising happens. There’s a kind of equalization, a balancing of values, a reordering of aesthetic weight. Instances of high and low offset each other, to potent effect. The great soprano Maria Callas is seen next to Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as Marilyn performs a send-up of a diva hitting haughty high notes. Jimi Hendrix casts his spell on a million stoned spectators in a virtuosic moment at Woodstock while a few screens over we find another over-the-top guitar solo, from This is Spinal Tap. A medley composed of scenes containing shouts and yells includes both a howling Cab Calloway and Janet Leigh screaming in the shower in Psycho. And, perhaps in homage to Cage, Marclay presents a grouping of three circular objects: a bass drum, a revolving record album with a skipping needle, and a roulette wheel with its ball rolling round and round.

Musical numbers in films have always held a singular strangeness for me. I find myself conscious that suddenly the actors are singing, generating abstract sound in formal ways that jolt me out of the film’s narrative. Video Quartet underscores this phenomenon and takes it a step further. By inundating us with only those heightened, artificial moments, an underlying realism begins to take hold. Ann Miller buoyantly dancing and singing, costumed in a Technicolor green dress (with an impossibly garish plaid lining), is transformed into something startling: herself. During the course of Video Quartet, it happens again and again as fictional and historical characters are transmuted magically back into the actors who play them: Woody Guthrie comes into focus as David Carradine, Ratso Rizzo is revealed to be Dustin Hoffman, Charlie Parker morphs into Forest Whitaker doing Bird. Video Quartet illuminates the fact that all films are, on the most fundamental level, documentaries. This is just one of many of the codes cracked in this stunning, multivalent and entertaining work of art.