A few weeks ago I found some photographs playing possum. Lying doggo. That is to say they were pretending to be merely transparent non-photographic representations of physical objects which happened not to be present. I’ve been mulling over these pictures ever since, and like them very much.
I saw Christian Marclay’s Sound Holes at the White Cube in London, which is hardly like finding a hoard of pictures in an attic or flea market. They were definitely exhibited as fillers, older work added to accompany the gallery’s presentation of Marclay’s 24-hour video piece The Clock.
The Sound Holes are a set of twenty-one photogravures dating from 2007. They depict the cheap steel loudspeakers which form the outward end of door entryphone systems. They are more-or-less life size, and when displayed on a wall, are shown at their natural height, somewhere just about mouth level. Had Marclay merely accumulated a collection of the physical steel objects and displayed them, no-one would have been in the slightest bit surprised, but no-open would have been very moved, either.
Marclay’s entire career has been concerned with sound and how it translates into visual forms. He has sometimes been described as a turntablist. This brilliantly awkward neologism leads us to suppose that the turntable has become an instrument in its own right, by extension from the more familiar locutions: clarinettist, pianist, organist…Playing the decks is familiar now but Marclay has been doing it since the late 1970s. He has made work with musical boxes, with the plastic sleeves CDs come in, with cassette shells. He is a player/performer as well as an artist, and has turned around the subject again and again. Sound depicted graphically and visual expressions made manifest in sound: these are his subjects.
So when he turns his mind to entryphones, it’s probably not merely as a collector of random street design.
Marclay’s entryphones are photogravures. This delicate process, so rich in the mid-tones, is the very ideal process to suit the scratched and perforated steel of his little speakers. Gravure is a magnificent process, more delicate in the right hands even than platinum printing, and Marclay has definitely got hold of the right hands to make these for him. The physical tonalities on the paper are magnificently rich.
There is a first and quite deliberate pun here in the contrast between the cheaply designed and produced steel objects (look on the street today – you’ll notice hundreds of them now they’ve been brought to your attention) and the museum-quality reproductions of them in a complex and difficult fine-printing process. Cheap functional objects on the street ennobled by positively Medicean levels of craftsmanship and beauty in the gallery.
These funny little objects, irritating and sometimes embarrassing to use, become revealed as a strangely moving. When you talk into one, the relation is lip to lip, a would-be whisper shouted over traffic noise and dodgy electrics. Passers-by invariably hear a part of your business, although as often as not the person upstairs hears nothing much beyond static. Remember how you feel when you use one: anxious immediately to pass up along it to be directly in the presence of the person on the other end, anxious to be properly understood. It’s a longing and a little trembling fear of rejection. Nobody had ever thought of entryphones as intimate before; but Marclay has made them so.
Marclay has drawn attention to the sound holes in musical instruments by his title. How elegant of him to equate these efficient little perforations with the beautiful holes on a fiddle or a cello, product of Cremona’s finest. Man Ray liked sound holes, although his Violon d’Ingres was made as much for the jeu’d’esprit of the title as for anything else. Violon d’Ingres means an interest on the side, and Man Ray’s model for the back-view was Kiki, his own Montparnasse bit on the side, photographed in a pose borrowed from Ingres’ first great nude, the Valpinçon Bather.
The tiny scrapes on the entryphones are more than merely the marks of repeated polishing. They are made by the rings and the zips and the buttons of the people who have rung the bells over the years. What a perfect surrealist object these entryphones become, hinting at the two great obsessions of surrealist art in one simple engineered steel piece. They are urban, speaking as surely of crowded offices and apartments as a plunging New York view by Berenice Abbott. And they are also anonymous. Marclay does not give us so-and-so’s entryphone, but Everyone’s. There are a few hints, no more. Half a manufacturer’s marque. Maybe a guess at domestic or commerical doorbells. But the stories these discreet little machines have heard are ours to recreate. Which lover returning after years found nobody home? Which Father Christmas delivered just the right thing here? Which nervous job interviewee rang the wrong bell or worse, looked at the bells and never dared ring? We’re invited to dream.
Some of the grilles look a little like faces. That’s fun — a steel mask against which to push your own soft face. The grilles are like the visors on medieval helmets, serving both to protect and to frighten.
Under all of this, is the question of sound. The engineering of these things has hardly changed since Edison. Appalling, probably a single wire, with the cheapest microphone concealed somewhere beyond the grille. Yet through this Heath Robinson contraption must pass all the complex intercourse of modern social life: that part of it, at least, which still actually takes place on the street and dares to meet face-to-face.
Twenty-one gravures. A series of Etudes? A Suite? A Theme and Variations? These are not merely mute reproductions standing in for the objects they allude to. These are magnificent photographs in their own right, carrying a big burden of allusion with assurance and grace. I’m glad to have seen them.