Rodney Graham

Music and Noise


The Canadian artist Rodney Graham (1949, lives and works in Vancouver) is presenting some of his most recent work at his first one-man show in Switzerland, grouped with some older pieces. The works in the exhibition relate to classical and pop music and to extreme sounds. Elegantly and humorously, they make the subject's experiences of these phenomena as systems in our everyday life and culture central to Graham's artistic transformations. Rodney Graham's works frequently take familiar things in our culture and look at them differently, starting with unfamiliar details, and can thus wrest surprising aspects and elements from the material. They have been shown in numerous international exhibitions, including Skulpturprojekte Münster, 1987 and documenta IX, 1992 Kassel. The Kunsthalle in Vienna and the DIA Center for Contemporary Art in New York have mounted one-man shows of his work. The artist has been known to a wider public since his work "Vexation Island" for the Canadian Pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. A retrospective of his work, not including the pieces in the Zurich show, can currently be seen at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Rodney Graham will be presenting his new music album, his fourth to date, "Music for the Very Old", on the opening evening, singing to his own guitar accompaniment. Eight concerts with his Parsifal compositions will be presented during the exhibition period. Is Rodney Graham a musician and composer? Or is he an artist who enjoys the currently fashionable crossover as an acquisition game? In fact Rodney Graham moves with striking confidence between artistic and scientific themes. He adopts a particular stance in the discussion about mixing up the artistic genres and the approach to pop culture that is increasingly to be seen in art: he does not stress the differences between the art forms that he combines, but operates as a relentless generalist who sees the various artistic expressive forms as indivisible. He treats parallel systems and forms as creative potential for his heterogeneous works and modifies them across the whole range of his artistic transformations into installation, photography, film, video, literature and music, addressing historical, literary and scientific material. He is interested both in their special qualities and in paradoxes, and also in unseen, uncanny and subconscious factors. Here he often picks out marginal elements from a known event or a known achievement, so that he can gain new access to the object via peripheral aspects. His artistic approach here is reminiscent of children pleasurably dismantling something in order to learn more when trying to ferret out the secrets of a toy or some other object.

"Parsifal" (1882 approx. 5 p.m. 38 969 364 735 to approx. 7.30 p.m.), 1990, derives from an incident during the preparations for the opera's world première at Bayreuth in 1882. 4 minutes of extra music were needed for the scene change that accompanies Parsifal on his way to the Grail. Wagner refused to write these, and so his assistant at the time, the composer Engelbert Humberdinck, completed a few bars derived from the existing musical material that made it possible for the orchestra to loop backwards in the score for the duration of the scene change. Graham used these bars to develop a system that generates a composition ending after a precise length of time, but that will never be accessible as such by normal standards. He separated out the individual parts and pauses. Each part repeats itself (is looped) but as the sequences extend from four seconds to four minutes, this produces an infinite number of combinations. All the parts come back together after 39 billion years. It is important, astonishing and a variation on the classical music system that that Graham jumbles up the normal approach to appreciating musical composition, strikes a glancing blow at the cosmic dimension of the temporal and composes music that is specific and individual, and that cannot be repeated within the time-scale available to us. Alongside these astonishing variations on classical music theory and practice , Graham's "Parsifal" contains further central elements of the artist's work, like for example the position and role of the subject in the face of the system that our culture developed under Modernism; the changes and repetitions of the same thing within the post-Modern view and the small variations that the secrets of the system can make possible for us. For this reason the relationship between the conscious and the sub-conscious repeatedly has a major part to play in the artist's output. His work on Sigmund Freud is evidence of this, but so are the pieces that examine means and methods relating to changed conditions of consciousness: like "Halcion Sleep", 1994, a film work in which he gets someone to drive him around on the back seat of a car after taking sleeping pills, or the works "Softcore", 1999, and "Phonokinetoscope", 2001, both in the Zurich show. They reflect our subject constructions and their fragile nature. And they reflect the individual's performance in reality. A theme that Rodney Graham constantly takes up and also puts into practice in his work: as a musician, as a performer in his films, in which he slips into the role of clichéd images from the history of film, science and music, and acts to provoke performativity by drawing in the audience. Rodney Graham's examination of pop music arose from his fascination with popular phenomena; the star, the perfect cover song. "Softcore" takes up several of this phenomena and stories at the same time: Michelangelo Antonioni invited a number of musicians to Rome to record the soundtrack for his 1970 film "Zabriskie Point". Although Pink Floyd are credited with the "Zabriskie Point" soundtrack, other stars appear as well. Jerry Garcia, for example, the Grateful Dead guitarist and singer, whom Antonioni asked for music for the love scene, in which an ever increasing number of naked couples in the desert presented a kind of fantasy of the sexual revolution. Garcia suggested improvising live before the rough cut of the scene. "Softcore" is Graham's repetition of this live event: in a work that first took the form of a Performance, Graham uses Garcia's improvisations again in "Softcore" as a musician. "Phonokinteoscope" brings science, film and music together in a kind of anachronistic video clip addressing psychedelic elements in pop music. At the same time it links up with other works by the artist operating with the appearance of images and the subject's relation to the image, triggered by the light from the apparatus. In the exhibition these become central in the work "Two Generators", 1984, which is also featured. "Phonokinetoscope" consists of a record and a 16 mm film triggered by a record player. The image of the hip sound desk in the DJ culture combines with the memory of two scientific anecdotes: an early experiment by Edison with playing music and sound together and the much quoted bicycle ride by Dr. Albert Hoffmann, the inventor of LSD, who rode across the Rhine bridge in 1943 after an experiment on himself. The soundtrack for the work was composed, played and sung by Graham himself, and relates among other things to Syd Barret's song "Bike", which ends with excesses of pyschedelic sound. Graham takes LSD in the Berlin Tiergarten in front of a reconstruction of Rousseau's grave, and cycles to and fro in the park. A card, the Queen of Hearts from his pop song, is stuck between the spokes of his bicycle wheel, and makes a parallel with the flickering film material - a light, humorous time warp, featuring music and the subject's conquest of the cultural ready-made.