When Visual Artists Make Music

When Visual Artists Make Music

VIENNA — Some artists lead double lives, and an exhibition with that very title at the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna explores the intersections between visual art and musicianship.

On large projection screens suspended at different heights (with sound coming through hanging headphones), the show features clips of painters, sculptors, performance artists and conceptualists making music on instruments, as singers, producers or in artist bands. Visitors can move from video to video, plunging into the worlds of early avant-garde music by Yves Klein, performances by Throbbing Gristle; Fluxus artists like Yoko Ono; or slick music videos by contemporary bands like Trabant.

Eva Badura-Triska, an art historian at the museum, which is known as Mumok, who curated “Double Lives,” had the initial idea for it after a conversation several years ago with the Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig. “We talked so much about music because he was involved in it in the 1980s. I hadn’t realized artists making music was such a topic,” she said in a recent interview.

Edek Bartz, a musician and producer based in Vienna, was brought in as a music expert; the two began with the early 20th century. “I frankly didn’t realize that Marcel Duchamp was making music, and he even wrote the most progressive and avant-garde music before he made his readymades,” Ms. Badura-Triska said.

The show divides the music by style and context (including Fluxus, Protest Bands and contemporary), showing only clips and omitting the art objects, although the latter are on view digitally on tablets within the exhibition space. Ms. Badura-Triska said that one thing the artists all had in common was “a conceptual approach.” Some of them made new discoveries, she added. “This show is part of rewriting art history.”

Both curators explained the stories behind the music in this exhibition, which runs through Nov. 11.

“Duchamp’s breakthrough with working with chance, which he did later in his visual art,” Ms. Badura-Triska said. But it “started in music,” she added. Duchamp chose the word “erratum” from a dictionary and put its letters into a hat; three singers sang notes based on letters they pulled; the original lineup was Marcel with his sisters Magdeleine and Yvonne. The first performance of “Musical Erratum” was on New Year’s Eve, 1912. Duchamp was great friends with John Cage, another composer who left things to chance.

This piece is one chord, by the midcentury French artistic “enfant terrible” Yves Klein, who is best known for his signature blue paint. The work is performed by an orchestra and choir for a certain duration, followed by the same period of silence. “Yves Klein says he had the idea for this piece to 1947 but the first performance occurred in 1960. It’s not easy to sing one tone for 20 minutes,” Ms. Badura-Triska said. “Yves Klein really did only one piece of music. He did his monochrome painting and his monochrome symphony. He was breaking boundaries everywhere. But as to the dating of this piece, Klein was a schoolboy in 1947!”

Slick pop featuring band members in white suits, standing in a puddle of water: this video to the catchy tune “The One” mocks 1990s pop aesthetics, à la Robert Palmer. The lead singer is renowned Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson. “This video seems superficial, but he’s still using a conceptual approach,” said Ms. Badura-Triska. “He’s asking the question: What is the artist?”

This archival clip of the avant-garde musician John Cage performing on the American variety show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1960 shows him making sounds with household objects including rubber ducks, radios, bathtubs and boiling water. The studio audience laughs at Cage’s intricately timed performance. “In the 1960s, so many things were allowed on television. Cage never had anything against entertainment,” Mr. Bartz said. “Making music with real objects is the same principles you have in performance art,” Ms. Badura-Triska said.

“Yoko Ono is such a fascinating experimental musician that we could have shown five or six screens with just her work,” Ms. Badura-Triska said. “Her voice is her instrument.” The curators decided on “Voice Piece for Soprano,” an example from Ms. Ono’s Fluxus period. The piece is primal and random but is based on a score, which is a set of instructions including lines like “scream into the wind,” that anyone could perform.

“German painter Albert Oehlen made many records playing with other people,” Mr. Bartz said. “But there were hardly any recordings or films. One of the first performances of Oehlen’s the Alma Band, with star artist Martin Kippenberger and Oehlen’s brother Markus, took place in Vienna. I knew this because I was there.” Mr. Bartz searched for documentation, finally finding footage on a film taken by a friend, Peter Kasperak. In the 1980s, the museum, now the 21er Haus, hosted Sunday morning concerts; this was one of the most eclectic. The clip shows Kippenberger dancing after the sound system had broken down.

“At the end of the 1970s in Vienna, a new movement started called Austro-pop. Musicians started singing in German,” Mr. Bartz said. “A few years later, a group of artists started avant-garde bands, like Hotel Morphila Orchester.” Peter Weibel, the band’s lead singer and a pioneering Austrian video artist, loved rock. “At the time I was working as a tour manager and he asked me how things worked; he was fascinated by performances and stage design.” Here Mr. Weibel chants catchy, repetitive lyrics in a video with psychedelic patterns. The band? “They’re a bit like schoolboys rocking out here,” Mr. Bartz said. Chicks on Speed covered the band’s “Sex and the City” in the 1990s.

This early electronica performance video is a classic. “‘O Superman’ is the Laurie Anderson piece, and she even made it into the U.K. pop charts with it. This is a very political song, because Superman is America, and she’s criticizing America in the background of the Iran hostage crisis,” said Ms. Badura-Triska, referring to the 444-day diplomatic standoff at the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1979-80. “I heard that Laurie Anderson has recently been doing amazing paintings and murals.”

“I love listening to this,” said Ms. Badura-Triska, describing Laibach’s German-language cover of Queen’s ‘One Vision.’ “Laibach is the German name for Ljubljana; they’re from the former Yugoslavia. The video is a reflection on fascism; it’s criticism by affirmation. They go super close to fascist aesthetics with trumpets and people marching.” Laibach formed as part of a group called Neue Slovenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) and has a new album out in November.

The New York artist Emily Sundblad (a.k.a. Reena Spaulings) is a classically trained singer who often performs in exhibition spaces; in this live documentation a cabaret-like set in Algus Greenspon Gallery in New York. “She is in the gallery, with a string quartet, and she’s mixing two songs: ‘Love Hurts,’ and Schubert,” Mr. Bartz said. “Everything she does is interesting.”

Mr. Bartz knew the British artist Martin Creed as a musician before he knew he was an artist. In this clip, Mr. Creed claims that living is about thinking and not thinking, “and that’s about it,” Mr. Bartz said. The song uses two chords and minimal lyrics. “It’s punky, minimalist. He tells long stories before playing very short songs. The spoken word is important to him.”

“I produced the first record Hermann Nitsch ever did,” Mr. Bartz said. “And he always composed music with a score, even if it was quite avant-garde.” Mr. Nitsch, the Austrian spearhead of the Viennese Actionism movement of the 1960s, which focused on scripted performance art often involving provocative bodily functions and fluids, was not classically trained as a musician; his theatrical and musical works have nonetheless included “shouting choirs” and Gregorian chants. “Organ Composition in Four Acts” was composed in 2013 and performed in Mumok’s exhibition spaces in October by the artist, who is now 80.

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