One of my big regrets last year was not getting to properly write on Extreme Craft about the best exhibition that I saw all year. That show was The Record at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina. Thankfully, the exhibition has been reconstituted in its entirety at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Yippee! A shot at redemption!
It's true, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool vinyl geek. I spent my college years donating plasma and spending all of the money on records. My record collection was literally purchased with blood money. In 1993, I opened my own record store in Lincoln, Nebraska. I owned the store through the 1990s golden years that were recorded in the movie High Fidelity. I could literally look around the record store in that movie and recognize every single piece of promo swag and every poster.
The Record features 99 works by 41 different artists. The pieces in the show run the gamut--from seminal works from established artists--like Laurie Anderson's "Viophonograph" (shown below) from 1977, and the original life-sized collage that David Byrne made for the album "More Songs about Buildings and Food". The show also features lots of fresh work from up-and-coming and lesser known artists who use vinyl as one of their touchstones.
I wasn't just attracted to the show because of my vinyl junkiedom. This show is so powerful that everyone will come away affected--from grannies who grew up with victrolas to snotnosed kids who think music is born inside of their iPods. I've seen hundreds of craft-based shows over the past couple of decades, and this is hands down the most tactile show that I've ever seen. The whole thing is about how human beings relate to sound in a physical way.
Vinyl is synonymous with obsession. To be a record collector is by definition obsessive. It's easy to pop a CD into a stereo or dial up an MP3 on iTunes. Record obsessives spend a great deal of time cleaning their records, adjusting their tone arms and anti-skating mechanisms, and worrying about replacing their dust jackets with acid-free mylar inner sleeves. The Record responds to this obsessiveness in kind. Tim Lee's "Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet" deconstructs its namesake record by carefully slicing it into an interlocking miniature solar system. Flavor Flav wishes he could wear this baby around his neck.
One of my absolute favorites was another obsessively produced work--Houston-based Dario Robleto (who incidentally designed the cover of Yo La Tengo's "Popular Songs" album). Robleto's triptych "Lamb of Man/Atom and Eve/Americana Materia Medica" will be instantly familiar to anybody who has spent time thumbing through thrift store record bins. The entire gigantic installation was created out of carefully cut pieces of construction paper. All of the "albums" in the installation are riffs on different religious and patriotic thrift store albums with different texts that have been beamed in from a parallel Mike Kelley "More Love Hours" universe. Robleto had another obsessively jaw-dropping work that consisted only of a Patsy Cline record in which the record's spiral groove was cut into a single long thread and wrapped around a wooden spool.
For obsessive "love hours", nobody can beat Mingering Mike (who I've written about on Extreme Craft in the past). Mingering Mike passed the late '60s as an introverted bedroom-dwelling teenager who created hundreds of fake album covers (complete with fake cardboard albums, inserts and labels) featuring the artist as a confident recording artist rather than teen recluse. The records were discovered in a flea market by author and DJ Dori Hadar at a Baltimore flea market--a discovery that led to a full-length book, and the re-emergence of Mingering Mike himself.
The show also has stunning conceptual (and sound-based) works as well. My favorite conceptual (why didn't I think of that) piece was Lyota Yagi's "Vinyl (Clair de Lune + Moon River)", a video work that consists entirely of a record that he made by casting an antique 78 RPM in silicone rubber, then filling that mold with water and freezing it. The result was a playable record made out of ice. Yagi then recorded the degradation of the record, as well the sound that it produced as it melted. The haunting final piece is a more effective Memento Mori than a weak-ass Dutch flower painting ever could be.
Did I mention the merch and the events? The show is like a wet dream for vinyl nerds and event planners. Over the course of the exhibition, there will be vinyl sales, dance parties, artist lectures and even a visit from acclaimed British album designer Vaughan Oliver (who designed all of those 4AD albums from the Cocteau Twins and the Pixies that you spent your college years mooning over). There is some serious merch as well--including a limited edition of 1000 albums released by (grammy winning!) MERGE records containing the piece Thundersnow Road by Xaviera Simmons. Finally, the exhibition catalog is to die for--it's filled with great essays by folks like Luc Sante and curator Trevor Schoonmaker, as well as essays by each of the featured artists.
SOOOOOOOO. If you're in Boston between now and September 5th, you owe it to yourself to check out the show, which is at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Even if you're not a vinyl obsessive, if you're reading this blog, you understand something about obsession and the tactile qualities that make vinyl an essential part of many of our diets. I'll leave you with one image that the curators overlooked.