New Museum, New York
3 February – 10 April 2016
by ANNE BLOOD
In Richard Dehmel’s 1896 poem Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), two lovers walk through the forest under the clear light of the moon. Then, among the tall oak trees, the woman confesses a secret; she is pregnant with another man’s child. Despite the sadness caused by the confession, the man forgives her and offers to love the child, who he promises will be transfigured to become wholly their own. The emotional stages of Dehmel’s poem are reflected in Arnold Schoenberg’s composition of the same name, written in 1899. Originally composed for a string sextet, the piece begins with the anguish of confession, before moving on to evoke the man’s considered reflection, and concluding with the warmth of his compassion and her bright acceptance of his love. When it premiered on 18 March 1902, in the Vienna Musikverein, the work was heavily criticised both for its use of the “nonexistent” inverted ninth chord and for its explicit references to the sexual subject matter in the poem, although it is now cited as one of the composer’s most important early compositions.
At the beginning of Anri Sala’s sound and video installation on the second floor at the New Museum, Schoenberg’s original composition fills the large gallery. Slowly the piece becomes fragmented as the parts played by the different instruments are isolated and dispersed across 20 speakers suspended from the ceiling. By controlling the dissemination of the sound in the space, Sala creates a sense of isolation, or even alienation, that runs counter to what one expects from a piece of chamber music, the tight unity of which derives in large part from the intense and intimate connection between the small number of players who respond to one another’s physical and aural cues. After a period of time, the fractured composition re-emerges, reconfigured and reduced according to the 12-tone technique Schoenberg pioneered in the 1920s, in two separate videos The Present Moment (in B-flat) (2014) and The Present Moment (in D) (2014), in which the musicians play only one note: B flat and D, respectively. Shown together for the first time, the two videos have a strange disunity even though they form a pleasing pair. In each one, we often see the players in isolation, with the view tightly cropped to show only an elbow or a stern profile. The reduction of the score adds an element of unnerving repetition; one feels stuck even while the rhythm propels the composition forward.
Both The Present Moment (in B-flat) and The Present Moment (in D) were recorded in the central hall of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, where the latter work premiered. Built in the 1930s as a monumental example of Nazi architecture, the Haus der Kunst was intended to display state-sanctioned art. By performing the work of a Jewish composer, who was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis, in such a space, Sala summons Germany’s troubled past, but not to offer a corrective or a rebuttal (there is no promise of transfiguration); the juxtaposition is more poignant for the sorrow it recalls.
That the memory of history haunts Sala’s work is abundantly clear when considering the numerous videos, video installations, drawings and sculptures on view in the survey at the New Museum, which covers more than 15 years of his career. Viewing all the material takes a certain amount of stamina – the installation fills three floors – but the works are well-selected and choreographed to draw attention to the breadth of Sala’s oeuvre, from the rough documentary aesthetic found in Dammi i Colori (2003) to the show-stopping mastery of Ravel Ravel (2013). Sala was born in 1974 in Tirana, Albania, and lives and works in Berlin, and this, the first major solo exhibition devoted to his work in the United States, provides a welcome and thorough introduction to his accessible and eloquently complex output.
A recurrent theme in many of the artist’s video works is how architecture allows us to express a sense of identity – as seen in the multicoloured apartment blocks in Dammi i Colori – and, more intriguingly, how these edifices retain the scars of past events, as evoked by the crumbling paint and cracked plaster on the public housing estate in Long Sorrow (2005). Often in his videos, architecture can at first appear simply to function as a backdrop, but after further research, these settings reveal their many layered histories. This is the case in Tlatelolco Clash (2011). Shot amid the ruins of an Aztec temple that sits on the edge of the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, the video documents a procession of different people who repeat the same action: they insert a short strip of punctured cardboard through a barrel organ. Each card contains a section of the 1982 song Should I Stay or Should I Go by the Clash, yet how the excerpts are presented is dependent on the hands of the different individuals, who crank the organ at varying speeds, creating a wide range of tempos and intonations. In the playful conclusion, the scenes are re-edited and run at different speeds in an attempt to fix the sequence of the song and even out the tempo. Set against beautiful scenery on a gorgeously sunny day, Tlatelolco Clash can, on the surface, feel sweet and slightly comical, yet the disjointed sections can also be understood to reflect the unstable nature of memory and how different people will recall a single event with slightly variations. This joining of excerpts could be seen as an attempt to create a communal memory, but with its halting tempo combined with the visible breaks in the editing, this utopian ideal is shown to be unattainable. But what about the space where the action occurs and why chose this song? Perhaps the song’s title and refrain offer a challenge that mournfully echoes through the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the site where some say the Aztecs lost a decisive battle with Hernán Cortés in the 16th century and where students and civilians were massacred while taking part in political demonstrations in 1968.
In a discussion held at the Haus der Kunst on 6 November 2014, Sala explained that he began to incorporate music into his work because he had lost trust in language and was drawn to music’s ability to express something implicitly.1 Although the specificity of the titles of his works may lead one to challenge the artist’s statement about his mistrust of language, Sala’s delicate interpretation of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D (1929-30) in the video installation Ravel Ravel exemplifies what attracts him to music as a material. The original concerto was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein (older brother to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), a concert pianist who had lost his right arm in the first world war and was determined to continue his career despite his handicap. The solo part is richly textured and the orchestral scoring leans toward the lower pitches of the ensemble, favouring the English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and low strings, to match the unusual domain of the pianist’s left hand. These choices combine to create the aural illusion that the work contains all the components of the more common two-hand playing style. Screened in a dramatic semi-anechoic chamber (a room designed to absorb the reflection of sound), the video installation consists of two projections that are hung offset from one another and each of which focuses on the left hand of a different pianist while playing the concerto. Sala asked the two pianists – Louis Lortie and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet – to adopt slightly different tempos so that the sounds of the two pianos shift in and out of unison, never creating points of dissonance, but instead gentle echoes and resonances that parallel the structure of Ravel’s original work in which musical motifs are traded between the soloists and the different sections of the orchestra. Wittgenstein and Ravel famously fell out over the concerto when the pianist took what the composer believed were too many liberties with his score, but their argument is a tangential anecdote. The juxtaposition of the two videos offers a simple focus on sameness and difference, as the subtle contrasts between how the players’ fingers navigate complex passages draws attention to their unique technique, while the moments of silence allow us to see how they react at rest, revealing personal ticks. By subtly tangling the concerto, Sala brings the act of interpretation, in its myriad forms, to the fore.