Efforts to raise the dead rarely go well. Frankenstein’s monster ended up killing its creator; popular lore warns that when zombies exit their graves, it’s a sign of the coming apocalypse. Nonetheless, the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston has attempted its own form of cultural resurrection in its current exhibition, “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.” Organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, the exhibit takes on a medium generally considered dead—vinyl—and argues for its current relevance. The diverse works in the show—made from sound, video and mixed media—offer attempts to breathe life into records. But as a whole, the ICA’s presentation is limp and witless, too bogged down with shallow nostalgia to present a potent argument for the importance of vinyl.
Some works do stand out, especially those that engage with vinyl as a physical medium. Foremost among these are the five pieces by Christian Marclay, a New York artist active since the late 1970s. Marclay focuses much of his work on the distortions of sound made possible by vinyl; he is largely credited with the invention of turntabling. In his piece, “Looking for Love,” a needle bumps across a record playing songs about romance; in “Ghost (I Don’t Live Today)” Marclay straps a modified record-player to himself and jams like Jimi Hendrix.
Taiyo Kimura’s fantastic video “Haunted By You” takes a more mischievous approach to vinyl distortions. Kimura toys with his turntable by replacing the arm with a chicken leg and slicing an apple placed on the record with a knife attached to his face. At one point he throws a real octopus on the vinyl just to film what happens. The record keeps on spinning. Unfortunately, though, the confines of the ICA’s gallery space reduce the effects of the video and sound pieces. Sounds blend together, and some of the subtler pieces are hard to grasp. Su-Mei Tse’s “White Noise”—in which small white balls are placed up on a turning record to replicate the crackling sounds before a song is played on a record—could barely be heard over the neighboring works.
This is a shame, because the visual works deal with vinyl much more superficially. Dave Muller’s two large paintings “Dave’s Top Ten (03/23/09: Muller Family Favorites)” and “Jake’s Top Ten (Nostalgia)” act as tributes to the dying art of record-collecting. Each painting is a large-scale representation of an ideal vinyl collection, the corners of the records frayed and worn from use. Muller presents his work with care and his own sense of loss is abundantly clear. But his work is more of an extension of nostalgia about the disappearance of records than a meditation on it. The paintings run solely on specific allusions to popular culture such as “Top Ten” lists in magazines like “Rolling Stone” and the kind of name-dropping that marks a website like “Pitchfork” or a movie like “High Fidelity.” As a result, they cater to a like-minded crowd instead of attempting to advertise their ideas to a larger audience.
The obsession with personal loss marks much of the art in “The Record,” and it is the exhibit’s greatest weakness. The exhibition makes no secret of the fact that it is dealing with nostalgia. Many of the works refer to the emotion explicitly. Alice Wagner remakes the covers of albums she saw as a child with colored thread and wax; Moyra Davey photographs vinyl collections in private homes. In these works, vinyl comes across as more of a relic than an object of greater importance. Its value lies only in the personal experience of the artist. Nor is the emotion of nostalgia fully explored as its own cultural force, and its prevalence in contemporary art deserves a critical look. An art exhibit based on a musical innovation that had its heyday decades ago could have been a good place to start.