I once knew a live music review to open with the following line: “Blur used the minimum of props to the maximum of effect. Damon was lowered from the roof in a giant TV set.”
The author, who was a colleague on the student newspaper I wrote for, accosted me in the bar and read his immortal opening for me. He was proud as punch. I found it funny as hell.
Years later I want to paraphrase him and say: Chris Burden has also used the minimum of props to the maximum of effect…fifty steel beams were dropped from a crane into a pit of liquid concrete.
Because although Beam Drop is an epic, expensive, time-consuming and hazardous production, it is also in essence very simple. It is not far removed from dropping toothpicks into porridge.
Burden has gone to a whole lot of effort to monumentalise a pastime that a child might engage in. So Beam Drop is a grandiose response to the tired old sentiment, ‘My six year old could do that’.
Incidentally, there’s not a six year old on the planet who would not have enjoyed the performance of this piece. Your inner child should also respond to the outbreak of controlled violence.
I want to call Beam Drop harmless. But even eight years on, as the beams turn a plot of sculpture park lawn into a rusting pin cushion, the sight of this piece causes some visual disquiet.
The materials are industrial. The formation is random. The appearance is out of step with its natural surrounds. Created by a crane rather than a brush, on this scale, the piece appears to lack humanity.
But given the alternative use for steel girders (a corporate HQ in downtown Antwerp, say), we might decide that the wreckage here in Middelheim is an expression of rebellion and even redemption.
Beam Drop can be found at Middelheim Museum, Antwertp. Museum website is here.
Liliane Lijn is such a hands-on artist that, within two minutes of arriving at her North London studio, my own pair were enlisted to help lift a Poem Machine from the floor onto a well-worn work surface.
There was an issue with this kinetic, text-bearing sculpture. It creaked as it rotated, so Lijn and a more capable assistant than myself were examining the drum, sketching the mechanism and muttering things about radial bearings.
It is the last place you might expect an artist with a background in Surrealism and Beat poetry to be. The workshop smells like a hardware store. Tooling machinery lies dormant on all sides.
There was barely enough time to note the spools of wire on the shelves or identify the pieces of industrial machinery. Lijn’s latest technical challenge was too baffling.
“I find engineering interesting, yuh,” says the American émigré, with an accent that belies her teenage move to Europe.
“If you make something, you’ve got to get it to work. I’ve never been the kind of artist who says, ‘I’ve got this idea, now who’s around to get it to work for me?’.”
This even holds true of a scheme to project text onto the moon. Lijn and scientific advisor John Vallerga have considered lasers, kites and lately heliostats for a project called Moonmeme. For recent work Solar Hills, they have even developed spectroheliostats to beam colour distances of 5km around the earth, .
The physics goes over my head, but Lijn points out: “I’ve been working with prisms for years. So I’m used to thinking about colour, refraction, the spectrum, what that is and how to deal with it.”
Moments later she demonstrates a wound copper sculpture and this is a wonder. As it rotates, a point of light rides up and down the column, like watching a vertical oscilloscope.
“The spiral does something weird,” the artist points out, seeming as confused as me by the two-directional waves. But today the penny drops. “I’ve figured it out,” she says. “It’s the direction of rotation.”
“Everything has an explanation,” she concludes. As the interview progresses, more and more of her sculptures come to life as Lijn moves around the studio switching them on at the wall.
In addition to Poem Machines and the tube of copper wire, the less industrial end of her workshop is home to rotating cones which are hooped with neon and a column made of solvent barrels. This rumbles away in the background as she talks.
Holes are punched in the side of these drums to spell out five words which fans of William Burroughs may recognise from Naked Lunch: “Way out is way in”.
It should be noted that the impetus from this piece came from a meeting with the Beat author, who “intimated” Lijn might draw on his work for a kinetic piece. (It was years before the artist came to the task, so sadly we cannot know Burroughs’ response.)
Soon it becomes clear that Lijn is as happy to discuss poetry as engineering. “The only people who liked these [Poem Machines] in 1962 when I first exhibited them were artists and a few poets.
“Though not many,” she adds with a laugh, “because they didn’t like the idea you couldn’t read their poems.”
Lijn moved to Paris in the late 50s and, along with Burroughs, got to know Sinclair Beiles, Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso. And whether they did or not, she still likes “that idea of words floating into your head and not being linear”.
If this is what she took from the beats, a crash course in automatic drawing was what Lijn came to through a meeting with the few remaining surrealists who André Breton had not expelled from the group.
“I’d done drawing at school and I never liked very much doing drawing from reality. So I started – which is probably a fault – doing drawings from my head.”
Now she says: “Drawing is very much about controlling the instrument that you’re using. It is, of course, an eye to hand thing, but it could be an inner eye to hand thing.
“You do have to control your hand and it’s very difficult; you find you’re thinking one thing and your hand is doing something completely different.”
As the many finished sculptures suggest, Lijn has got to grips with many instruments in her time. And as the odd creaking Poem Drum suggests, she may still not have total control, but practically speaking, she’s there.
First please allow this bold claim. The appeal of a model train set lies not in the sexual inadequacies of a certain type of man, but in the chance to see a world made of cycles.
Watching Murmur by Ray Lee puts one in mind of these maligned toys. It has been installed in a basement filled with a mechanical whirr. LEDs travel around on wide aerial circuits.
There are no trains but, when the main lights go down, it is not hard to imagine planes. With eight or nine sets of spinning arms on metal tripods, it suggests the air traffic of an entire hemisphere.
But planes and trains are not the only things to circle our planet. Artist Ray Lee is more interested in electromagnetism and other invisible fields. The whirring tripods play music. It is celestial.
In full flow, murmur is breathtaking. It is a landscape with a pulse. These points of light cannot be stopped and you worry there may be just too much activity. But nothing goes wrong.
Which brings us back to train sets. These, likewise, never crash. It could be they too are following invisible fields of energy, or possibly that is just what they reveal. No wonder they divide people.
Murmur can be seen in the show Phase 5 until 27 November as part of the Liverpool Biennial 2010. For more details see the Biennial website.
Exhibition: Andrew Stonyer – Audio Kinetic Solar Sculpture, Fermynwoods, Northamptonshire, until September 26 2010
It has been a few decades since music fans frequently used terms like “cosmic” and “far out”, but such language seems about right for a new work at Fermynwoods.
Andrew Stonyer’s sculpture hangs between a small group of Elder trees and responds with movement and sound to the daily cycles of our nearest star.
The artist describes his sculpture as “a search for patterns of actual and implied kinetic imagery, hidden within the seemingly regular”. In other words, this latest work should investigate whether or not the sun moves to a beat.
Audio-kinetic solar sculptures are nothing new apparently. Stonyer has looked to pre-classical Greece for inspiration, where there is evidence for the common enjoyment of sun-powered, sound-producing sculptures.
Another historical precedent is the notion of an Aeolian or wind-powered harp which came into fashion with romanticism. Once again it was nature calling the tune.
But not all of Stonyer’s work is quite so ethereal. A 2000 installation in the Newcastle Metro offered a kinetic response to the vibrations of passing trains. Cosmic? Maybe not, but a heavy trip all the same.
Written for Culture24.
Painting merges with sculpture, sculpture merges with sound, and sound merges with light this month – in a UK-wide guide to the best of contemporary art written for Culture24.
Brian Eno – 77 Million Paintings, Fabrica, Brighton
Religion was never so chilled out. Brian Eno offers a slow-changing digital stained glass window and soporific ambient music score. Former chapel Fabrica meanwhile offers comfy red sofas where visitors can kick back and soak it all up.
Angela de la Cruz – After, Camden Arts Centre, London
If you think you know the difference between painting and sculpture, think again. For Angela De La Cruz, the canvas is just another object, which may be torn, crushed and broken in order to challenge the authority of Western art’s most dominant form.
Helen Frik – Difficult, Chapter, Cardiff
For a show about difficulty, this promises to be accessible. Helen Frik brings humour and humanity to the proposition that difficulty is an essential, perhaps desirable aspect of everyday life. Sound art and homemade toys back up her case.
Andrew Stonyer – Audio Kinetic Sculpture, Fermynwoods, Northamptonshire
Seen in terms of the planet’s revolution through space, all sculpture is kinetic. Indeed this new commission responds to the daily cycle of the sun, using green technology to produce the effect of a solar Aeolian harp. Definitely worth a listen.
A Certain Distance, Endless Light – A Project by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and William McKeown – MIMA, Middlesbrough
If Felix Gonzalez-Torres could appear posthumously at the Venice Biennial, why should he not be named as a collaborator in MIMA’s latest show. With living Irish artist William McKeown he now posits light as the central subject of modern art.
Susan Collis – Since I Fell For You, Ikon, Birmingham
It could be the most opulent building site of all time. Susan Collis intervenes in the space at Ikon using turquoise Rawlplugs, diamond pencil marks, and much more. The results are both amusing and quietly spectacular.
Exhibition: Laura Taylor – Speedboat Matchsticks, Surface Gallery, Nottingham, March 27 – April 8 2010
In a gallery, it may be impossible for an object to become completely useless. Laura Taylor will strip away the functionality from her ready-made sculptures, only to find new purposes for each assemblage.
Her raw materials are oddments of motorised scrap, dismembered toys, daubs of paint and hanging string. They don’t amount to much in isolation, but when built up into an “over-engineered apparatus” they take on new roles.
Taylor’s playful art promises to entertain and engage, even if it only partially works in a mechanical sense. And while the objects might fail to do what they ought, a spirit of optimism runs through her reconstructive project.
Speedboat Matchsticks is not her first experiment with function in a gallery context. In 2009 she produced a mixed media installation at Surface Gallery for their Open Show 2009.
Her contest entry was called Something That Produces Results, Kulit. It resulted in her winning. What her latest works may give rise to is anyone’s guess.
Written for Culture24.
Published on Art & Music
The dense reverb is always there. Artist Stephen Cornford has to speak up to be heard. In the room are eight customized turntables on plinths with speakers. None are switched on, but all are plugged in. And that is enough to make the air throb in Brighton’s tiny Permanent Gallery.
“This show sounds so different from how it did a month ago,” he tells me. “Some are quieter. Some are louder. These are things which I deliberately don’t want to control, for instance that noise which you hear now, and it does different things.”
It’s worth pointing out that the units do not play records. They play ball bearings, marbles, springs, gravel and empty bells. They have slipmats made from metal or stone. Each one produces three or so minutes of chaotic noise when activated.
The turntables are a new departure for the Devon-based sculptor, who more often puts instruments to such strange uses. He uses motors to swing an electric guitar and powered-up amp around in an “aeolian loop”. Or spins guitars and a bass round the gallery to create an “aleatory song”. Or vibrates the necks of a row of wired up guitars.
Cornford says his interest lies in the iconography of the object: “The electric guitar is if you like a symbol of rock culture, of youth culture, of this kind of rite of passage of young people to make music, not only young people I guess. And throughout its history it’s been reinvented as music has moved forward, as rock and roll music has moved forward.”
On a more classical note, he has also done unusual things with a piano. This has included putting contact mics inside the casing to play with the tone of different strings. Electromagnetic pick-ups have turned the tinkling ivories into a drone instrument. He’s even clamped firebell motors to the bass notes.
“The piano I kind of see as the icon of classical composition,” Cornford explains. “It’s what a composer uses. Most classical composers would sit down at a piano. They wouldn’t have all the other instruments available to them when they’re writing their concerto or whatever, so it kind of sits as, yes, as the icon of that field.”
The sculptor defies each instrument’s traditional function by exploring their shape, size, weight and resonance. He claims to be more concerned with physical characteristics than musical properties: “I don’t really have an interest in music as notes, as bars, as melody. I’ve just got an interest in the sound phenomena that these things are capable of creating.”
Inevitably though, things get musical. Cornford has begun to perform improvised gigs and comes to the interview fresh from a set of feedback in which a snare drum became a string instrument. He has produced a 7” single to accompany the Works for Turntables show. And his slightly wild curly hair certainly puts one in mind of a musician.
But the term “anti-music” still brings forth a pleased chuckle: “I guess I try not to draw any lines around what is music and what isn’t music, which is a very old Cagean idea, but I really try to look at all sound as potential music. All noise is potential music, just depending on the ear of the beholder.” Indeed John Cage was one of the first composers to work with a phonograph turntable.
Cornford admits he has friends who don’t like his automated and improvised pieces: “They’ll say ‘Oh, it’s just horrible sounds!’ and I sometimes think that’s almost like a moral objection to unpleasant sounds.” Instead, he argues that music, like art, need not be beautiful.
After pondering the differences between those two worlds, he suggests: “Maybe music just kind of plugs so straight into you. You can’t close your ears to ignore it and it resonates with you in ways we don’t entirely understand.
“And because of that,” he adds with a grin, “People don’t really like it when it makes them feel kind of nervous or awkward.” At this point his record players, which have us surrounded, seem to hum in agreement. Cornford’s non-musical music has been misunderstood for too long.
Published on Culture 24
Stephen Cornford – Works for Turntable, Permanent Gallery, Brighton, until September 20 2009
It seems unlikely the record players on display will ever make another sound. In place of one slip-mat, for example, is a stone wheel and a marble has been harnessed to the stylus. It is surely beyond repair, yet on the side is a red button and on the wall a sign inviting visitors to go ahead and press it.
Surprisingly, it works. The stone wheel turns, the marble gets dragged around its spokes, and the whole thing is amplified by a speaker in the middle of the plinth. Each device is on a timer, and so the piece of music lasts about three minutes, the length of a perfect pop song.
There are eight customized turntables in the Permanent Gallery’s exhibition, all of which dispense with vinyl, instead playing a combination of springs, wires, marbles, ball bearings, bells and gravel. Tunes you can whistle are thin on the ground, but there are drones, rattles and rumbles aplenty.
But such avant-garde use of record players does have some precedent amongst musicians. French composer Edgard Varèse experimented with phonograph turntables in the 1930s. Then in 1939 John Cage composed a piece using two variable frequency turntables to accompany a piano and cymbals.
Cornford’s turntables are likewise designed for performance. Visit the gallery at 6pm on Saturday September 19 and you can see the artist present an evening of improvised sound. If you like what you hear, there is also a limited edition 7-inch single available to accompany the exhibition.
Nothing, however, beats trying them out for yourself. Press one red button and you have to press them all.