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The Sound of Visual Art at SFMOMA

When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art decided to show Winchester, three short films by artist Jeremy Blake, it knew where to display them: in the same long, velvety dark room that housed Christian Marclay’s “Video Quartet” in the past. The question was how? In one long sequence (they’re each between 10 and 20 minutes in playing time) — or, as was ultimately decided, side by side?

By turning the trilogy into a triptych, SFMOMA emphasized how we absorb visuals and sound differently. Blake’s three films are derived from the Winchester Mystery House, a tourist trap in nearby San Jose that was once, in the late 1800s, the home of the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune. Story has it that she feared the ghosts of people killed by her family’s flagship product, and thus kept up construction on the building throughout her lifetime, creating architectural oddities — hallways to nowhere, circuitous loops, trap doors — to confuse her spiritual stalkers. Blake, perhaps most widely known for his digital acid sequences in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Punch-Drunk Love and his album art for Beck’s Sea Change, created video odes to the sights, sounds and figments of Winchester. The most recent of the three films has the same overripe colors as Punch-Drunk Love, but the other two emphasize the house’s sepia-tone decay. Each film has its own soundtrack, of period music and/or illustrative noises, like creaks and the flutter of film stock. Whether you sit on a bench in front of any one of the films, or on the floor with your back against the wall to take them all in, they remain individual works, but the sounds combine into a collective score, which varies continuously, due to their differing lengths.

Now, one doesn’t ever take in a single exhibit without it playing off the other exhibits in the same museum. Much as the sound from each Blake screen mixed with that of its two counterparts, other sound-related art at SFMOMA seeped in metaphorically from around the building. Down in the permanent collection were two Robert Rauschenberg pieces: the mixed-media “Trophy IV (For John Cage)” sculpture from 1961, and one of the stark white canvases (“White Painting [Three Panels],” 1951) from the series that informed composer Cage’s famous “silent” work, 4’33”.

An enormous temporary exhibit of video installations by Gary Hill included pieces like “Cut Pipe” (1992), two long cylinders, one of them showing the image of hands gently molesting a speaker cone; “Crossbow “(1999), a three-screen video of Hill working at his desk and occasionally taking a break to blow a sho, a Japanese mouth organ with bamboo pipes; and “Circular Breathing” (1994), which projected large-scale side-by-side moving images, with resulting overlays of on-screen sound. The informative text descriptions of the individual pieces were mostly written by the artist himself (something museums should do more often). Of the sho, Hill explained, “It makes one steady, long sound, a clearing to begin again.” And of “Circular Breathing,” he wrote, “Erik Satie’s ‘Vexations’ comes and goes throughout, adding to the sense of endless subterranean emotion.”

Part of the museum’s permanent collection, “Cyclorama,” by Marco Brambilla, sets in an eye-level semicircle nine video monitors showing moving images shot from rotating rooftop dining rooms in Montreal, New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, Toronto, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Seattle. Carefully synchronized, the visuals suggest a heady, warped zone in which traffic flows from the Mississippi River Bridge through St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, and the sun rises and sets throughout North America in one simultaneous instance. Like Jeremy Blake, Brambilla has credits in Hollywood, having directed such B-movies as Excess Baggage and Demolition Man (for both of which, it’s worth mentioning, he employed first-rate composers: John Lurie and Elliot Goldenthal, respectively). The quietly enveloping sound design in “Cyclorama” (by, I believe, tomandandy, who contributed to the scores of Oliver Stone’s JFK and Natural Born Killers, and who have collaborated with artists Jenny Holzer and the Starn Brothers) may have benefited from the power of visual suggestion, but it made my ears pop.

Blake’s Winchester shows through October 10, 2005. Image, Body, Text: Selected Works by Gary Hill closes today (May 30, 2005). More info on some of the various organizations and artists: SFMOMA (sfmoma.com), Jeremy Blake (link), Gary Hill (link), the Winchester Mystery House (winchestermysteryhouse.com).

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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