As an artist whose work explores, in myriad mediums, an interest in “how sound is visualized,” Christian Marclay now seems newly compelled by how sound can be eulogized. For his current show at Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea, Marclay has created a group of large cyanotypes that act as gravestone etchings of popular music’s essentially moribund medium: the cassette tape.
Lacking the nostalgia and distinctive sound that has allowed vinyl records to remain relevant (one would even say even popular—sales of 12-inch vinyl records increased 36 percent from 2006 to 2007) the tragic flaw of cassette tapes is that, like VHS tapes, they were born to die. Both were created with the knowledge that they would ultimately become useless. While “technology” artists like Corey Archangel have played with the degenerative quality of VHS tapes by producing films whose main objective is deterioration, the audio cassette has rarely found itself to be a muse of contemporary art.
Enter Marclay, who, in this body of work, has exalted the cassette tape for (of all things) its formal visual qualities. His elegant Prussian blue cyanotypes, which in their antique process and abstraction nod to the 19th-century photograms made by Anna Atkins, feature swaths of unfurled cassette tape strewn hither and thither, as well as the ghostly figures of transparent cassettes. The tape continually crosses and overlaps against itself and the photosensitive paper, creating a depth of field that gives the works the illusion of three dimensions.
Expression comes into play immediately, and Pollock’s drip paintings provide an unlikely reference point. Many of the pieces, including Memento (True Love), 2008, feature long, loose, drifting currents of tape that recall Spanish moss draping over tree branches in the Deep South. That feeling of static ancientness one has when looking at the primordial everglades comes across in the work, and the broken tapes lying at the bottom of the image suggest prehistoric alligators, poking their watchful eyes out from an algae-covered swamp. In other pieces, like, Untitled (Madonna, Thy Word and Sonic Youth), 2008 one encounters the tapes unspooled in a way most reminiscent of the curled ribbon and streamers found at a child’s birthday. That same evocation of forgotten time is present, though these images seems to be more about remembering the party than remaining in the past. As a whole, the show exists as a memento mori to two antiquated mediums, and further tells a tale of our throwaway culture’s obsession with newness and convenience—and our blindness to that which has been left to rot.