Thursday, 1 September 2011

John Cage, Hayward Project Space

Known primarily as a composer - and thrust into the spotlight by last year's attempted gazumping of the X Factor Christmas #1 elect with 4'33" - this touring show, stopping off at the Hayward Gallery, also looks at John Cage's art, writing and performance works.

The space is two rooms. The first has a collection of his art works, pieces of chance-structured art that are in themselves uninteresting, aesthetically opaque. However they are a useful document with which to compare the explanations and records of his involvement on the inception and periphery of the Fluxus movement. All this is documented in video and audio in the cramped by interesting second room. There is the 1990 television documentary I Have Nothing To Say, And I Am Saying It which one can see online here. There are a number of pieces of music, both recordings of scores like Aria (1958) and sampling collages recorded at the time. I liked the cumulative pieces like Europeras 1&2 (1985-7) in which extracts from operas are performed simultaneously (strangely lacking in cacophony) and above all the HPSCHD (1968) which sounds like a prepared piano piece by Conlon Nancarrow but without Nancarrow's clear deliberation.

What I hadn't bargained on was Cage's rigour extending to his written and read works. There are journal entries whose form (if not content) is governed by the outcome of consulting the I Ching, Cage's reference work of chance. Most interesting is a manifesto written about his sometime friend Marcel Duchamp, the artist best known for 'readymade' art, in which extant objects - rather like the extant sound with which Cage was so enamoured - are co-opted into being art. 26 Statements Re: Duchamp is as much a literary work dictated by chance as it is a digestible list of aphorisms on the titular subject. Some of the 'statements' are only one word long as  that is all that chance has allotted them - there are 26 of them as that what chance decided there would be (between 1 and 60).

I listened to two of them and have forgotten them already. The point is not primarily the content, in the same way that the artworks of the first room are not inherently worthwhile but rather a record of a process. But this is not to change the point of any artwork that hangs on a gallery, but merely to re-illuminate it. Unusually music is piped into this room. At first I thought that this might be a distraction. However, on reflection it seemed perfectly well-assimilated to the other pieces on show, given that the medium wasn't the content but rather the record of its construction. Even the hanging of the pictures in this room is governed by the same process by which the art and music was rendered. Whether a busy Londoner in a cramped upstairs studio next to Waterloo Bridge will have time to reflect on and absorb this before the show move on on the 13th September is another matter.

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