Seeing artwork in person is different from seeing it in reproduction. Not just because of the quality of the visual but because we don't experience the contemporary, real-world context of the work. A picture of the Mona Lisa behind all her glass barriers in the Louvre documents the object and its situation but doesn't capture the audio context in which it exists: the throngs of tourists exclaiming "There she is!" in a babble of languages or asking for the bathroom or the nearest bench.
The experience of art is not necessarily a pure, unsullied thing, a direct experience between you and the work. Your experience is affected by the environment in which the work is shown, and that includes the sounds of other people, nature, traffic...At the other extreme, New Zealand conceptual artist Julian Dashper gives us sound without image. "Unique Records," his show at Texas Gallery, presents recordings derived from his art-related pilgrimages and the environments of modern and contemporary artworks.
Dashper travels a lot, like all those New Zealanders and Australians who seem to turn up all over the world, always on some epic travelogue. New Zealand has a lot more going on than sheep, sheep and more sheep, but it still isn't exactly the epicenter of the art world, so Dashper frequently goes abroad. In 2001 he received a Senior Fulbright Fellowship and was artist-in-residence at the University of Nebraska and at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Roaming from shows to projects, Dashper has made his recordings along the way.
Dashper transforms his captured sounds into objects. Lovely transparent discs hang on the walls of the gallery. These are called rec-ords. Remember those? Primitive pre-CD forms of audio recording, one step beyond Edison's wax cylinders. Dashper's records are even lathe-cut, giving them maximum Luddite audio quality.
Dashper's albums come in clear polyvinyl sleeves with white card inserts, their information printed with near-archaic rub-on Letraset type. Remember generic foods at the grocery store? These look like generic records -- no flashy graphics, no lush photography or surreal illustration. He is not making any visual promises for the content, just a title and a matter-of-fact description that causes more conjecture than understanding. The cover of Dashper's Blue Circles reveals that it was "Recorded in front of Jackson Pollock's 'Blue Poles, Number 11, 1952,' 7th January 2002 Canberra, Australia."
Worlds of speculation open up. What in all likelihood contains the sounds of a museum guard's creaking shoes or the cacophony of a school group could potentially harbor drama -- a domestic dispute exacerbated by abstract expressionist art or perhaps international espionage plotted under the cover of a public place. Maybe it is just long minutes of awkward and reverential museum silence interrupted by the occasional "My kid could do that."
In case you were wondering, no, the artist won't let you listen to them and "try before you buy." This is not the CD section at Borders; the work isn't about the sounds the records contain as much as it is the idea of those sounds and the unassuming object that presents them. But that doesn't stop us from wanting to know...
Some of the recordings are brief; you see that only a tiny edge of the record has been engraved. Others are full-length and double-sided. The size of the shiny, unmarked circle in the center shows how much time has been recorded, thus the length of recording visually alters the object. It reminds you that you used to be able to physically see the imprint of recorded material. You can't tell whether a CD is blank or contains every Bach opus.
The album covers are laid flat on a big table in the center of the gallery. Peeking inside, you find little absurd snippets the artist has placed there. In the sleeve for Blue Circles is a Lufthansa postcard of a man in a blue uniform standing on a ladder servicing a jet plane engine. (Why would Lufthansa make such a postcard? Is the message "We check our planes carefully!" or "These things break a lot!"?) Dashper has included it as a kind of nonsouvenir of his far-flung art travels.
Leaving Nebraska is the title of another piece. "Side 1, recorded from 8 am November 2001 Lincoln, Nebraska, Side 2, recorded from 2 pm March 2002 Waterview, Auckland," it reads. Another Lufthansa postcard, this time of the nose of a 767, is tucked inside. Are the recordings a kind of bookend to his stint as a Fulbright fellow? Leaving Nebraska is a great title that screams monotony. It reminded me of family trips to the Cornhusker State. I remember what leaving Nebraska smelled like -- feed lots -- but I only remember what leaving Nebraska sounded like the year the family van developed an annoying and elusive squeak in its door. My father coated it with a can of WD-40 and stuffed streaming wads of toilet paper in his ears, all to no avail. Unless it's painful, sound that isn't tied to a musical pattern is harder to remember.
How personally specific are Dashper's recordings? He is obviously a part of all of them whether he is heard or not. If it literally is "leaving Nebraska," do we hear his idle conversations with a seatmate on a flight journeying hemispheres away, or his CD collection and the wind rushing through the car window on a road trip? For $1,500 you can find out.
Outside Rothko Chapel (2001-2003) is a locally recorded piece, "Side 1, recorded from 5.30 pm 23rd September 2001 Houston, Texas. Side 2, recorded from 5.30 pm 24th September 2001 Houston, Texas." Rather than document the self-conscious reverence of the chapel, Dashper has made his recording standing outside. You kind of hope somebody came up and had an interesting conversation with him, but maybe you just hear some birds and the occasional police siren in the background. Side two was apparently recorded out back with the ambient sound of the air-conditioning units. Inside the album cover are the fragments of a torn-up postcard of Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk in the reflecting pond outside the chapel. Poetic musings are written on the back. Was it really found outside the chapel as the artist has said, or is it a plant?
There are a lot of other little coded art-world references in the work. For part of another work, I am nature (2001-2003), he made a recording on Fireplace Road, the place where bombed-out-of-his-mind Jackson Pollock ran his car off the road, killing himself and Edith Metzger, his passenger. The second side is identified as "Studio drip, recorded from 3.30 pm 31st March 2002 Waterview, Auckland." Dripping water in the studio, dripping paint, Jack the Dripper?
In an interview accompanying the exhibition, Dashper shows a few more of his cards. Getting Ready (2001-2001) is identified as being recorded in Quemado, New Mexico. This is where Walter De Maria's Lightning Field is located. "Those people who have been there will instantly recognize the name of the tiny town where Dia has its office, where their representatives meet you and take you to the work." But, Dashper concedes, "Those who haven't been there, I guess, will find this line willfully obscure." Dashper's goal isn't to test your art-world trivia skills; he has a healthy sense of humor and anticlimax. "I guess the fact that on one I chose to record myself in the bathroom there, nervously getting ready to walk around the piece for the first time, makes the whole idea of a direct homage seem less of a blanket strategy and a little more like Mr. Bean meets Walter De Maria."
"Unique Records" explores context as it archives the sounds around art. Like all good conceptual art, most of the appeal lies in the idea, but a good part of the appeal also lies in our imagining of what's on each record. Maybe there is some great truth to be told or some secret to be revealed. Or maybe it's just the sound of some guy in the bathroom getting ready to drive out into a field of lightning rods.
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