Video Quartet brings together more than 700 film clips linked by their focus on music or sound. The work consists of four synchronised videos which are projected onto four contiguous screens (with each image ideally measuring eight by ten feet), although the videos can also be projected onto a gallery wall, if the surface is flat and painted white. Each of the four videos has a separate soundtrack, broadcast through two speakers positioned directly above and below the respective projections. Video Quartet is designed to be shown on a loop within its own discrete space, in which the walls (which should be sound-proofed) and the floor (which should be carpeted) are entirely black. This work is the first of two artist’s proofs – the other is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – which were produced alongside an edition of five.
The clips included in Video Quartet, which Christian Marclay edited in his New York studio using the software programme Final Cut Pro, are taken mainly from Hollywood feature films, both colour and black and white productions. Dating from the 1920s to the early twenty-first century, and featuring actors such as Liza Minnelli, Rita Hayworth and Jack Nicholson, these source materials have been described by Marclay as ‘fragments of our cultural baggage’ (quoted in González, Gordon and Higgs 2005, p.89).
Video Quartet begins with scenes of an orchestra tuning up, a segment which builds to a crescendo before it is followed by clips in which characters play musical instruments and sing. The work also includes scenes featuring shouts, screams and close-ups of various noisy objects, such as a spinning roulette wheel. At some moments the same image appears in all four projections; occasionally a single clip seems to bounce between them. As the musician, composer and writer Alan Licht has suggested, ‘As carefully composed and edited as it is, there is also an improvisational feel to parts of Video Quartet, as if each clip is reacting to another spontaneously’ (Licht 2003, p.103). The overall effect is to create a fourteen-minute musical symphony – one with its own distinct rhythms and sections, including moments of calmness and dramatic counterpoints – out of fragmented elements. With visual and audio finality, Video Quartet ends with the sight and sound of a door slamming.
As its title suggests, Video Quartet indicates a fascination with media imagery and musical composition, twin themes evident in Marclay’s work since the beginning of his career. Since 1979 the Swiss-American artist has combined musical performances – including mixing records on multiple turntables and collaborating with the rock band Sonic Youth as well as the more classically inclined Kronos Quartet – with the creation of sculptures and installations composed of drum kits, brass instruments and vinyl records. Marclay has emphasised the connections Video Quartet holds with his previous work using turntables: ‘It’s the same vocabulary of techniques, using snippets of sound and putting them all together to create a new unified composition.’ (Quoted in Licht 2003, p.102.) Prior to Video Quartet, Marclay’s work had also closely engaged with film, and suggested a specific interest in the relationship between sound and image. Telephones 1995, for example, is a single-channel video which collates film clips of phone conversations, while Up and Out 1998 combined visual footage from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) with the soundtrack to Brian de Palma’s Blow Out (1981). After Video Quartet, Marclay went on to produce further works related to cinema, including The Clock 2010, a 24-hour assemblage of film clips referencing time which is synchronised to its local setting.
Video Quartet was originally commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it was first shown in April 2002 as part of a solo exhibition of Marclay’s work entitled Sampling. In 2003 it became the first work by Marclay to be acquired by Tate.
Alan Licht, ‘CBGB as Imaginary Landscape: The Music of Christian Marclay’, in Christian Marclay, exhibition catalogue, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles 2003, pp.88–103.
Jennifer González, Kim Gordon and Matthew Higgs, Christian Marclay, London 2005, pp.82–91.
Jean-Pierre Criqui (ed.), Christian Marclay: Replay, exhibition catalogue, Musée de la musique, Paris, and the Australian Center for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Zurich 2007, pp.10–21.
Supported by Christie’s.