I used to live in Little Italy in New York City. When someone died in my neighborhood and there was no one to come claim that person's stuff, whole lives would be put out on the sidewalk for the trash collectors. These tragic accumulations inevitably included stacks of old records, dusty archives as revealing of their former owners as portraiture, now untethered objects destined for decay.
Over the past few years, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke has been dropping hints about The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, an exhibition that in some small way redeems the sense of loss for all of us who've born witness to the callous treatment of record albums the world over. Curator Trevor Schoonmaker has amassed a compelling roster of 41 artists who've dedicated themselves to the serious (at times devotional, at times absurd) investigation of the vinyl record album. In doing so, Schoonmaker has identified a bona fide subgenre of contemporary art practice and delivered a significant exhibition.
One of the early glimmers of The Record took the form of a lecture by artist Dario Robleto, whose transmuted quotidian objects are included in the exhibition. With a fervor driven by the highest stakes possible—equating recorded sound with life and death—the artist began with Edison's declaration that sound recordings "cheated death" and confessed to his own hyper-consciousness that petrochemical-based vinyl, like fossilized organisms, is the product of both life and death. In his lecture, Robleto inducted his audience into nothing less than a poetics of vinyl. This paradigm of poetry, identity, life, death and, yes, the cosmic finds form throughout the exhibit.
Jack Goldstein makes tangible the juncture of natural sounds and the words that describe them in his 1976 project, "A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records with Sound Effects." Individual records, each of a different, brilliant hue, carry stark labels with bare-bones titles such as "The Dying Wind," "The Lost Ocean Liner" and "Three Felled Trees." The viewer dons headphones and, via digital interface, listens to the promised recordings. Just as images and their linguistic counterparts can never match up, there is nothing in the title of "A German Shepherd" that can prepare us for the sharp, communicative barks of the recording. In this work, Goldstein brings us a poetics of sound that quantifies the unquantifiable, the quantum leap between language and experience—contained in candy-colored disks.
Goldstein's work alone deserves a finer-grained reading than space will allow, but suffice it to note that Goldstein's records simultaneously contradict and reiterate their utilitarian counterparts: For example, somewhere in the conceptual backstory of Goldstein's "The Dying Wind" are the echos of Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind." Each artist in The Record represents just such a distinct articulation of the exhibition's themes. I won't be able to do any of them justice. I can only persevere in the space of this review and strongly suggest you see the show, probably a few times (every good record merits repeat listenings).
The Record begins with a welcoming gesture: a set of listening stations, each with a bin containing 20 record albums curated by guest artists or artist teams. The albums were chosen as much for their visual impact as for their sonic content. Visitors are invited to flip through and play the records. It's both an introduction to the exhibition and a form of ritual invocation. Any conversation about vinyl would have to include the ritualized activity surrounding the act of playing a vinyl record album, from the solitary user to the DJ spinning for a packed club. Therefore, it's no surprise that The Record abounds with ritual and shrine-like constructions. William Cordova's towering sculpture "Greatest Hits (para Micaela Bastidas, Tom Wilson y Anna May Aquash)" (2008) is a totemic stack of record albums where one might easily imagine making offerings to the music gods (note that the artist has already left pennies, a cigar, Peruvian gourds ...). And David McConnell's "Phonosymphonic Sun" (2008–09) is an inner sanctum populated by phonographic sculptures lit as if they were (oracular) performers, an enclosed chamber in which we can meditate to the sounds of McConnell's multilayered compositions built from recording-studio improvisations.
The specter of death and the uncanny finds its way into many works in The Record. In Mark Soo's "That's That's Alright Alright Mama Mama" (2008), death is right there. This 3-D twin re-creation of Sun Studio, a highly detailed photographic construction down to its crumpled packs of Lucky Strikes, used coffee mugs and period rotary telephones, with its illusion of spatial depth and verisimilitude, gave me chills. I held my breath, half-expecting the the King King to walk into the sound booths.
Indeed, Sun Studio as a mythic entity haunts The Record. Shawn Duffy's "Burn Out Sun" is a floret-shaped construction made of Sun Studio record albums. Set on a tripod, the sculpture reads as a kind of camera or multiplex of eyes—insect-like—that performs a kind of retrograde surveillance. And the black and yellow of the Sun Studio logo finds stealth expression in the exhibition's graphic design.
The depiction of the record album as sun/ moon/ celestial orb is an inevitable visual coda of the exhibition. Free-floating disks in empty space appear in two-dimensional works by Ed Ruscha and Jasper Johns and in conceptual constructions, such as Yukio Fujimoto's series "Delete" (2004), a lineup of five "sanded and degrooved" vinyl records. Gregor Hildebrandt's "Kassettenschallplatte (Cassette Record)" (2008) is a sculptural work composed of hundreds of feet of wrapped cassette tape, a fetish object for which one medium has been rendered useless to embody the equally nonfunctioning image of another. The moon resonates in Lyota Yagi's "Vinyl (Clair de Lune + Moon River)" (2005–09), a video document of a work simultaneously heartbreaking and humorous, in which the artist fabricates record albums made of ice. This simple but ingenious work restores a sense of awe at the miracle of sound recording.
Satch Hoyt's "Celestial Vessel" (2009), a boat fashioned from luminous vintage ruby RCA 45s, is suspended in the main hall of the Nasher. This sublime work is accompanied by a seamless soundtrack, short passages of recorded music, subliminal remembered tracks that flow into one another in synaptic flashes. The idea of the planetary resounds in Tim Lee's "Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet, 1990" (2006), a constructed homage to Russian Constructivism that also (intentionally or not) channels the cosmological vision of the second-century astronomer Ptolemy, whose "Planetary Hypotheses" put forth the notion of the universe as a series of nested crystalline spheres that generated celestial music as they spun.
I'd read about Mingering Mike, whose handmade ersatz records, tributes to an imaginary soul-singer alter ego of the same name, were discovered at a flea market. But I was utterly unprepared for the joy of seeing them in the flesh. A substantial collection of his exuberant, abundantly imaginative work can be seen here. They're hand-painted albums with titles like "Life Is A Bitch!"—the cover of which inexplicably depicts a plate of food, done in a style that scans in the lineage of American painter Stuart Davis.
The record as essential signifier of the self is represented in works such as Malick Sidibe's vibrant photographic portraits. The record collection as portraiture (and linear geometric abstraction) coheres in Dave Muller's epic vertical paintings, "Jake's Top Ten (Nostalgia)" (2003) and "Dave's Top Ten (03/23/09): Muller Family Favorites" (2009). And the comic poetry of Taiyo Kimura's succinct performed actions, packaged in concise video clips, reveals the compulsive, passionate and ridiculous ways in which we relate to and consume music. Images of the artist chopping an apple spun on a turntable with a blade taped to his head, being choked by a cord attached to a spinning turntable or burying a working record player in an earthen grave seem oddly familiar. They're embodied reconstructions of how affected we are by the music we possess and which, as Kimura (and the exhibition) makes clear, possesses us.
I've run out of space but need to at least give a nod to the show's catalog, which goes so far beyond mere documentation that it might as well be titled The Record/ Volume II. I'll just conclude by letting you know that The Record has a good beat. And you can dance to it.