Finding Art in Empty Space: Responses to John Cage
Notations: The Cage Effect Today at Hunter College/Times Square Gallery
February 17-April 21, 2012
Curated by Joachim Pissaro, with Bibi Calderaro, Julio Grinblatt and Michelle Yun
450 West 42nd Street, between Dyer and 10th avenue
John Cage would have considered the location of this show a work of art in itself: a thoroughly chaotic intersection with buses zooming out of the Port Authority, obstructed sidewalks, a construction site, scaffolding everywhere, and above all, the thrum of noise—or, as Cage would have called it, sound.
Trained as a composer, and notorious for composing a piece consisting of “silence” (4’ 33”), Cage, more than anyone, established sound as an artistic discipline beyond the walls of the concert hall. “Notations” takes its name from the title of a book in which Cage compiled experimental musical scores, including some of his own but mostly those of others; it is thus a fitting title for a show that celebrates the centennial of his birth by showcasing twenty-eight international artists whose work reflects his sweeping influence. As parsed by Joachim Pissaro’s erudite essay and the entries in the fine exhibition catalogue—written by Pissaro’s students—this legacy centers around the location of art in natural and “empty” space (as in ambient sound); the blurring of distinctions between conventional categories of artistic practice (as in the famous “prepared” pianos); and most importantly, the invitation of indeterminacy (as in what he called “chance operations”) into art.
“Notations” is housed in the Hunter College’s labyrinthine Times Square Gallery, vast enough to dedicate some of its spacious rooms to just one or two pieces, and conveying the feel of an honorific museum, rather than a temporary exhibition. The first work viewed is One, a subtle, contemplative 90” film by Cage of roving spots of white light. (The austere soundtrack, 103, is an independently composed work for orchestra.) Made near the end of its Cage’s career, One is a symbolic as well as a literal “beginning” of this ambitious homage.
The Fluxus movement of the 1960s was a direct extension of Cage’s multi-media performances, and is represented here by Telepathic Music #5, Robert Filliou’s witty Dada-like ensemble of folding music stands that display playing cards and notes inscribed with enigmatic directions. Contrasting with this silently orchestrated play on “play” are assemblages for the making and/or hearing of sound. Edgardo Rudnitzky’s brilliant Octopus is a retrofitted turntable with four arms that simultaneously play individual instrumental performances recorded on four separate tracks of a vinyl record. In true Cageian fashion, its automated start and stop play generates continuous reassortments of musical fragments, redefining the concept of the “string quartet”. In Ears with Chair, Yukio Fujimoto brings attention to ambient sound by using long tubes to amplify and deliver it, in stereo, to the listener’s ears. Another interactive piece, Leon Ferrari’s Colgante Escultura Sonora/Hanging Sound Instrument, is a curtain of hanging metal rods which, when disturbed, emit a palpable harmonic buzz.
Others translate Cage’s exploration of sound and silence into visual studies of negative and positive space; for example, Fred Sandback’s familiar yarn sculpture (Untitled), and Waltercio Caldas’s O transparente (da serie Veneza)/The Transparent (from the Veneza Series), a disorienting exploration of the outlines of everyday forms. Some works channel Cage via Raushenberg (Liz Deschenes’ Tilt/Swing, reflective photograms of darkness); Warhol (Kaz Oshioro’s Orange Speaker Cabinets and Gray Scale Boxes, an auditory twist on Warhol’s Brillo Boxes); or both (Ushio Shinohara’s Coca Cola Plans, replications of the eponymous Rauschenberg combine).
There are ample videos, including Christian Marclay’s Indian Point Road, visually minimal but with a lush backdrop of natural sound; Felipe Dulzaides’ humorous, inventive short films; and filmed interviews of Cage by Frank Scheffer (From Zero: Four Films on John Cage). Embodying Cage’s notion of “instantaneous ecstasy” is Daniel Wurtzel’s marvelous Pas des Deux. In this videotaped performance, a ring of fans propel two lengths of diaphanous, colorful fabric into mid-air. Minute variations in flow cause the material to twirl and billow, coming together and apart in an exquisitely (un)choreographed dance—an allusion, perhaps, to Cage’s long artistic and personal relationship to the dancer and choreographer, Merce Cunningham.
Seemingly intended to fill out the margins of Cage’s reach is more conceptual work, such as the blank full-page ad taken out in Artforum magazine by Nicolas Guagnini and Gareth James, but its connection to Cage is less compelling. Similarly, in contrast to Cage’s anarchist allegiance—resolutely couched in the aesthetic—one imagines that an sociopolitical comment is being made by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s amalgam of “prepared” piano and ticker tape, indexes (v. 1), in which software transforms a live feed of international financial information into notes played on a grand piano, but it remains unspecified.
One theme that emerges from “Notations” is the transformation of daily practice—to which Cage was devoted, and related to his deep immersion in Zen Buddhism—into art itself. A perpetual work-in-progress, William Anastasi’s Sink is a flat steel slab that is “watered” every day, allowing the complex patina to evolve in its unpredictable way. (One of the edition of four belonged to John Cage’s own collection.) In Window Project, Reiner List creates a light box grid of serial daily photographs of the same Eighth Avenue view from his studio. And in her moving installation, O trabalho dos dias/Day’s Work, Rivane Neuenschwander covers the walls and floor of a room with sheets of adhesive film, each one stuck with the debris collected from her home in one day; en masse, this has the strangely elegant effect of travertine marble. The tension evident in these and other works results from the contrast between their strict rhythmic order and the chance events they document—illustrating just how hard it is to resist our natural resistance to disorder.
Last year, the Nobel Prize in Physics was given to astronomers who determined that there is no such thing as a vacuum: even in supposedly “empty” space, forces acting to expand the universe. Famous for finding art in “empty” space, John Cage was ahead of his time, and remains vital still.