“Screaming Columns” could work as a band name. It would be a good title for a punk rock song. It’s also how the French artist Hughes Reip describes his 1997 installation “Flash”, in which he plastered the columns of the Salle de Bal at the French Institute in Vienna with announcements for new records or concerts by various musicians he found posted around town. Overlapping one another, the quiet space overflowed with the energy, noise, and life of these images with Tricky, U2, Genesis, Johnny Cash, Megadeth, and Judas Priest sharing precious inches on the narrow gallery columns. The work points a clear interest that pervades much of Reip’s work: animating the visual with the electricity of the oral.
The histories of art and music have spent much of the past century watching and teasing each other, flirting, and often merging. Artists, musicians, and art spaces around the world have paused to reflect on the ways in which the abstract poetry or narrative impulse of sound and music can find its place in visual art. Art Nouveau, the cubists, and the futurists are early examples, but more recently, Christian Marclay’s sculptures of vinyl records, Adrian Piper’s funk lessons, Daniel Pflumm’s techno videos, Janine Gordon’s mosh pit images, or Pipilotti Rist’s pop song remakes emphasize the relevance of music culture in contemporary visual art. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Reip prefers to integrate sound into visual art through the use of its raw and untamed – and often silent – energy rather than its imagery or sonic properties.
Music and its communities certainly play an important role in Hughes Reip’s work, but his work is equally informed by the tradition of animation and the moving image. Indeed, he uses the iconography of music to animate space. A particularly explicit work is “Feed-Back” (1998), where moving abstract shapes seem to be distorted by sound, much like Nam Jun Paik’s imagery is distorted by magnets. The shapes, however, are actually an animation simulating a relationship between sound and image. For “Wire #1” (1996), he stretched dozens of thin metal strings across the gallery, forming a restrictive maze tense with implied sound that viewers penetrate with caution and delicacy. In “Blow” (1998), a video of an empty white room, shown on a monitor in that same empty white room, suddenly explodes in noise as one of the walls comes crashing to the ground, making the unchanged gallery shake in its silence. Uninterested in “sound art,” Reip prefers to use music as electricity: he makes space vibrate.
Although he remains refreshingly inconsistent in his methods and imageries, Reip likes to use what he finds on the street, cast-away leftovers. For “Stand” (1997), he filled a gallery with 80 discarded objects collected from the city streets, photographing the space every time he added a new object until he filled the room with chairs, car bumpers, cables, and other debris. He exhibited the slide show of each consecutive image in the emptied room, the succession of which exposed an animation of the life of the space.
Invited to Art in General for seven weeks, Reip’s eye turned once again to the street’s leftovers, and to music. He was asked to develop and complete a new work during his short time in New York, while keeping his studio space open to the public throughout the process. Following Marcel Duchamp’s famous pronouncement, “je suis un respirateur” (I am a breather), Reip sought to penetrate – and to be penetrated by – the city. Despite the chaotic flux that often permeates the architecture and urban choreography of this city, he became interested in uncovering a simple elegance. Focusing again, as he did with “Flash” in 1997, on music concert announcements, Reip searched street corners and graffiti-worn walls for low-budget flyers for underground, or at least marginalized, rock concerts. He gathered a collection of very un-glossy photocopied sheets of paper advertising shows that used simple graphic components such as sloppy cartoon characters, astronauts, cow-girls, gorillas, robots, or explosions. Attaching them to the wall of his studio over the course of several weeks, Reip exposed a portrait of New York’s off-off-off Broadway: the undeniable existence of an active and persistent – if sometimes invisible – community of musicians, music venues, music fans, and amateur graphic designers.
Returning to his system of using music and the energy of the culture that supports it as fuel for an animated visual presence, Reip chose samples from the imageries of each flyer to compose an animated film just over 2 minutes long. His often crumpled and torn pieces of paper became a dreamlike story whose leading actors where characters and objects from crude graphic design. Parading across the screen like hand-drawn puppets, the animated faces, things, and fonts found in the flyers are given a second chance, a second context, and a second audience. The forever-young attitude of music culture and the constant come-and-go of its ephemeral flyers and announcements are perfectly mimicked in the endlessly morphing properties of animation.
Although it contains hints of urban or cultural anthropology, Reip’s work remains distinct from the many artists who explore ways of re-mapping New York’s streets, such as Dylan Stone’s photo archive or Mark Dion’s archeological digs. Reip’s art is one of displacement and migration: the litter of New York’s walls and lampposts are collected and carried into the moving image. Joined at the hip, music and image feed off each other, and the noises of the streets, of the music, and of the people who share them, animate the work with a synaesthetic energy that begs the viewer to simply listen with their eyes.
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