Review: “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl”
Record collectors and modern artists have a lot in common—both are obsessive, a little kooky and object fetishists to the nth degree. This is what makes LPs, and everything that comes with them, so ripe for artistic tinkering.
“The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl,” curated first for Duke University and now for the ICA by Trevor Schoonmaker, brings together album-themed work by artists from all over the world. These sundry enthusiasts play on ideas of all the things that LPs evoke—music, most obviously, but also design, identity and the persistence of dusty nostalgia in a digitizing age. The name of the exhibit is a one-two punch, of course; it’s about the records as objects themselves, but also about how the vinyl and all that comes with it documents our collective cultural history.
The first thing you see when you walk into “The Record” is William Cordova’s “Greatest Hits (para Micaela Bastidas, Tom Wilson y Anna Mae Aquash),” a ceiling-high column made out of 3,000 stacked LPs. This pop-culture totem pole sets the tone of the exhibit: vinyl and its trappings are so beloved to these artists that they’ve taken on the significance of sacred icons.
There’s also Dario Robleto’s “Sometimes Billie is All That Holds Me Together,” which consists of a vintage shirt fastened with buttons made from melted-down Billie Holiday records. It first and foremost begs the question: why would anyone ever melt a Billie Holiday record?
The next room is all about cover art, with highlights including Robleto’s meticulous and funny faux-record jacket collection, “Lamb of Man/Atom and Eve/Americana Materia Medica” and David Byrne’s original Polaroid-collage cover for The Talking Heads’ sophomore album, More Songs About Buildings and Food.
As is to be expected, there are plenty of artists who experiment with sound in the exhibit, too. Legendary performance artist Laurie Anderson’s “Viophonograph,” a violin with a record and turntable on it instead of strings, messes with ideas about live versus recorded music; David McConnell makes an infinitely-looping symphony using six re-jiggered phonographs with “Phonosymphonic Sun.” For “Thundersnow Road, North Carolina,” photographer Xaviera Simmons took portraits of herself in various Carolina landscapes and had musicians record an album based on the shots.
A lot of stuff on display in “The Record” isn’t all that weighty, but just kind of fun. The pointed beaks of taxidermied birds stand in for record needles in Jeroen Diepenmaat’s “Pour des dents d’un blanc éclatant et saines,” and Japanese video artist Taiyo Kimura does some hilariously screwed-up stuff with turntables, kitchen knives and chicken legs in “Haunted by You.” And if all this vinylalia gives you a hankering to play some records yourself, you can head over to listening station “Cover to Cover” and thumb through the record collections of artists and musicians from the exhibit.
Like a needle passing over vinyl, Schoonmaker’s exhibit moves with minute but shallow strokes. There’s plenty of detail and much to distract (both visually and aurally), but not much depth. Maybe that’s the point, though: “The Record” is about how we compress passion and memory into material, and how that object is what we ultimately come to covet. It’s the story of vinyl and the people who love it—not just because of the sound it contains, but because of the visceral, tactile appeal of the thing itself.