Music is a collection of notes arranged in a particular order and heard in a particular context (thus a person noisily unwrapping a piece of candy can be music, but unwrapping candy during a Mozart concert is merely noise). Christian Marclay makes art in much the same way that one might compose music — by arranging things, often sounds, in a particular order and placing them in a specific context, a gallery, museum, or other space devoted to perceiving the arrangements of things. For the last 15 years or so, he has been composing what he calls “graphic scores,” arrangements of musical notations found on objects like clothing, record album covers, photographs, and boxes. “Christian Marclay: Festival,” an exhibition and series of performances at the Whitney through September 26, focuses on the scores, both in performance and as visual artifacts, while also presenting objects to be played by musicians, drawings, sculptural pieces, videos, and ephemera.
For a visitor, this wonderfully challenging show is not always a melodious experience. Confronted with, say, the thirty album covers in Covers (2007-2010), one wonders what to make of them. Eventually it becomes clear that Marclay has chosen the group because each cover has some musical notation printed on it: the work consists of ordering the albums and then playing the notes as a single piece. Similarly, Box Set (2008–10) requires a musician to play the notes on a group of found boxes, which he must first place inside one another Russian-doll style in whatever order he chooses. As one peruses these ingenious scores at the Whitney, squeaks, horn blasts, and other notes tumble through the space as musicians interpret the music they suggest. Of course, most of the notations Marclay has gathered were not made by composers but by graphic designers so the resulting scores can be discordant.
Not all the scores feature instruments. For Mixed Reviews (1999–2010), for instance, Marclay assembled words and phrases that music reviewers have employed to describe concerts or recordings. He then orders the words in a single line of text along a wall — to be read silently or aloud. One vocal score, Manga Scroll (2010) — a 60-foot-long roll of paper on which onomatopoetic sounds (like "boom") found in Manga comics have been pasted together — will receive it’s world premiere at the Whitney. The work expands on the artist’s use of comic-book onomatopoeias in a number of ink-jet prints, such as Click Click (2006) and Aaaaahhh (2006), which reproduce torn bits of comics displaying the sound words.
Few artists have displayed such consistent discipline in their choice of themes as Marclay, even fewer have wrought such manifold and delightful variations on a theme. The Whitney’s “Festival” only adds luster to his role as a maestro of contemporary art.