If you can't have a revolution without an anthem, it's also true you can't have an anthem without a great recording.
Take the experience of legendary photographer Malick Sidibé of Mali, where the sacred songs of the countercultural uprising in the postcolonial capital Bamako were the vinyl recordings of James Brown and the Beatles. Sidibé's stunning black-and-white studio and nightclub portraits of beaming subjects posing with their favorite albums, snapped during the turbulent 1960s, offer more than a mark of status and hipness. They reflect the transformative power of the vinyl record on popular culture during a historical period of newfound freedoms.
Sidibé's photos are one high point of "The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl," a sensational new exhibit at the Miami Art Museum boasting close to a hundred works by 41 artists from around the world who have focused on records as their subject or medium.
Groundbreaking in stature, the sprawling show explores the record's cultural heft from the '60s to the present and includes a remarkable collection of sound work, sculpture, installation, drawing, painting, photography, video, and performance. The traveling exhibit was organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, the institution's curator of contemporary art.
As you might expect from the first museum exhibit aspiring to drop the needle to the groove, the sound components of diverse works bleed into one another across museum galleries to create a rambling aural pudding that churns up recollections of visiting an old-school record store.
"There is a growing nostalgia for the record album as an object," MAM curator Rene Morales says. "People enjoyed album cover art, text, liner notes, the album sleeves. It was a more material way of connection with the music and the artists who created it."
Distinctly international and intergenerational, "The Record" incorporates a wildly eclectic range of artistic styles and media and pairs established names with rising stars on the contemporary art scene. It also includes numerous artists, such as Jeroen Diepenmaat and Taiyo Kimura, who are making their debut in a U.S. museum.
Diepenmaat, who hails from the Netherlands, makes an immediate impression with his unusual approach to the subject matter. At the entrance of the exhibit, his offerings include two turntables upon which stuffed birds perch, their beaks lowered to the LP vinyl platters and employed as record needles. One of the albums is titled De Zang der Vogels (The Song of Birds), and as the tracks spin, the faint whisper of chirping resonates through the taxidermied crow's cranium.
Behind the Dutchman's opus, William Cordova's Greatest Hits (para Micaela Bastidas, Tom Wilson y Anna Mae Aquash), 2008 also staves the skull.
Cordova, who has deep roots in the Miami art scene, has created a soaring column of 3,000 reclaimed vinyl records in a visually powerful and totemic work that brings to mind an ancient Egyptian obelisk such as Cleopatra's Needle.
Isolated in its own room nearby, Xaviera Simmons's Thundersnow Road, North Carolina, 2010, commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art for this exhibit, leaves an equally lasting impression. The artist traveled across the Tar Heel State posing for a series of photographic self-portraits in which she holds a guitar in diverse rural locations.
Simmons's suite of poetically evocative pictures was sent to musicians and sound-based artists, who each created tracks inspired by her images. Their songs were then returned to Simmons, who had an album made from the music. The results are on display in a room with plywood-lined walls that resonate with the bliss of music created in the heartland, far from the big-city capitals of the modern music industry.
Some of the works in the exhibit provoke nostalgic reveries. Christian Marclay's Secret, 1988, might prompt memories of fumbling with a bra strap as a teenager while skipping school and listening to Barry White on a girlfriend's tiny plastic phonograph. Marclay's piece consists of a metal "Master" disk with a padlock, inspiring thoughts of a chastity belt. The disk is used to press music tracks into hot wax, but it's silenced forever by the security device.
"Today music has become increasingly abstract," Morales observes. "People download music from the Internet and listen to it on their MP3 players. One of the themes of the exhibit is the cohesive nature of the record."
One of the more visceral displays of a visual artist's connections with the album covers of her youth is the work of Alice Wagner, who has painstakingly re-created Josef Albers's album designs for the band Enoch Light during the late 1950s and early '60s. The Peruvian artist, whose parents highly prized Albers's album covers, has made her eye-popping versions out of wax and thread in a process that was labor-intensive and belies the simplicity of the clean, visually striking original abstract designs.
One of the few drawbacks of this show is that, not unlike any audiophile's favorite greatest-hits compilation, it is way too complex and nuanced to experience in one sweep.
Works such as Satch Hoyt's Celestial Vessel, crafted from old RCA Red Seal 45-rpm records, and Mark Soo's monumental 3-D C-prints titled That's That's Alright Mama Mama and depicting the legendary Sun Record Studios control room, are two cases in point. They both speak to how the mainstream music industry often exploited African-American talent, who were at the mercy of white producers in earlier times.
Ambitious and thought-provoking, "The Record" is ultimately too large to house at MAM, which is why the museum has partnered with other local cultural organizations to celebrate the love of vinyl during the exhibit's two-month run.
Don't miss this rousing ode to the wax platter, and check out MAM's website for an inspired list of engaging on- and off-site programs at locations across town, ranging from lectures on the history of record-making in Miami to live DJ performances and record swaps.