Why does a critic like Greil Marcus write about Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag”? on #neuguitars #blog
I think you all know Greil Marcus. No, maybe not, not the blog readers who have a classical background. Well, Greil Marcus (June 19, 1945) is an American writer, music journalist and cultural critic. He is known for producing academic and literary essays that place rock music within a broader cultural and political framework. His writing is interesting, cultured and is based both on a series of connections that have the ability to broaden the reader’s mental glimpses, and on a true storytelling ability. Greil Marcus fascinates, as good storytellers know how to do. From someone who has devoted himself primarily to rock and popular culture all his life you wouldn’t expect a foray into contemporary and experimental music, but Greil Marcus is capable of that and more.
So it happens that in his book “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs” you come across the chapter dedicated to “Guitar Drag”, an experimental piece created by Christian Marclay. But what does Greil Marcus have to do with an avant-garde like Christian Marclay and with a song that stands on the ontological boundaries between political thought, sound art and conceptual art?
Let’s start by talking about Christian Marclay (San Rafael, 1955). Marclay is an American artist and composer. He studied Fine Arts at the Ecole Supérieur d’Art Visuel in Geneva and at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He currently lives and works in New York. Marclay’s work explores the connections between sound, noise, photography, video and film. A pioneer in the use of records and turntables as musical instruments to create sound collages, Marclay has been defined, in the words of the critic Thom Jurek, as “the unwitting inventor of turntablism.”. His use of turntables and records, starting in the mid-1970s, was developed independently of but parallel to hip hop’s use of the instrument. He has collaborated with musicians and artists such as John Zorn, Butch Morris, Shelley Hirsch, William Hooker, Otomo Yoshihide and Okkyung Lee, Günter Müller, Flo Kaufmann. Thom Jurek also wrote: “While many intellectuals have made wild pronouncements about Marclay and his art – and it is art, make no mistake – writing all sorts of blather about how he strips the adult century bare by his cutting up of vinyl records and pasting them together with parts from other vinyl records, they never seem to mention that these sound collages of his are charming, very human, and quite often intentionally hilarious. “
His artistic activity caught my attention due to a 14 minute video / installation, entitled “Guitar Drag”. Guitar Drag shows a pickup truck dragging an amplified electric guitar tied by a string across a Texas roadway to its aggressive destruction. The film begins with the artist tying a string around the neck of the guitar and firmly fixing the amplifier cable before cranking the pickup and off. The sound is, as you can imagine, scratchy and tortuous, sometimes akin to the destruction of an angry beehive and other times to an undeciphered hum from outer space. These sounds intensify as the pickup truck accelerates and the guitar slowly falls apart. The video was created, as well as to pay homage to the author’s love for punk and its destructive traditions, mainly in response to the 1998 murder of 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, in Texas, by three white supremacists and the subsequent repercussions of the tragedy. Byrd is believed to have remained alive for most of his terrible ordeal.
Since 2000, Guitar Drag has been exhibited 24 times in museums and galleries, both nationally and internationally, including the Hayward Gallery in London, the Koyanagi Gallery in Tokyo, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany; and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
In a disturbing introductory scene, Marclay prepares for the crime. He knots a string around the neck of the guitar and ties it to the back of an old Chevrolet truck. He also connects a cable from the guitar to an amplifier, powered by three car batteries, which is located in the back of the truck. He plays some almost random strummed, evoking the anthropomorphic qualities of the instrument, as well as its preciousness, just like a person, capable of good and evil. Then, with the amp on, Marclay drags the guitar through the South Texas landscape. Guitar Drag’s direct and extended metaphor of a murder drags the viewer, with immediacy, into a test of endurance: watching the video from start to finish, we are forced to consider (for a long time) the unthinkable. In this way, the video gives up its status as an art form and instead serves as a testament.
Guitar Drag has many different levels of references, alluding to both the ritual of destroying guitars in rock concerts, but also reminiscent of Fluxus and its many instrument destructions. It is also like a road movie, referring to the Texas landscape where it was filmed, with references to cowboys and rodeos. It is about violence in general and more specifically the lynching of James Byrd Jr. who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck. Activate people’s imaginations in contradictory ways. The piece ends up being seductive and repulsive at the same time. Guitar Drag not only resonates with our auditory and visual senses, it also investigates contemporary history, race, geography and social issues simultaneously on multiple levels.
From the first sounds of torn duct tape, to the familiar sound of someone strumming guitar strings, to the sounds of an engine starting and then slowly the onset of a hollow yet human sound that takes us through the deeper roars to shrill screams to the end when everything slows down and is silent. Sound triggers the imagination, leaving no peace of mind. Because even though this could only be seen, or heard, as a noise piece, there is too much in the idea behind “Guitar Drag” not to leave you restless and thoughtful. Why do we think it is wrong to destroy or mistreat a musical instrument, and what motivates our reactions when we see damaged or destroyed musical instruments? There are several artistic contexts in which the mistreatment or destruction of the instrument takes place. Some pieces of contemporary music or performance art involve improper use of an instrument or even its destruction. More famously, some musicians in the world of popular music, especially rock, have had a habit of sacrificing their instruments on stage at the end of their show.
The sacrifice of an instrument embodies many of these aspects: it is uncontrolled, hectic, loud and brutal. Equally relevant to rock music is the fetishist veneration of fans for the artist, and once again we find a connection with the destruction of the instrument: the public is often offered what is left of the instrument as a precious relic (a term which again emphasizes a turn the connection between the instrument and the musician’s body). Marclay’s work explores the connections between sound, noise, photography, video and film. “Guitar Drag” is a powerful example of how, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the technological reproducibility of art has not been able to deprive it of its “aura”, that is, of its unique presence. Marclay was able to create an ontological idea of the guitar capable of overcoming the limits of mass culture analyzed by Benjamin. Greil Marcus was able to insert this vision into the context of ‘popular’ culture by extracting Marclay’s work from his avant-garde patina. “Guitar Drag” was also released on vinyl, in a limited edition. The price? Fetish stuff