Art

The Artists Who Led Secret Lives as Musicians

Double Lives showcases the sound-based creations of people better known as artists than musicians.

Exhibition view of Double Lives (photo by Klaus Pichler, © mumok)

VIENNA — Side hustles can be typically pretty boring ways of keeping the dream alive. There are actors who waitress, authors who tutor, and singers who barista. Few people would consider going into music as a lucrative hobby. Nevertheless, a handful of visual artists have devoted their excess energies to music to the point where their moonlight professions have nearly overtaken their daytime careers.

Mumok, one of Vienna’s leading modern art museums, is currently running an exhibition titled Double Lives, which focuses on the sound-based creations of people better known as artists than musicians. A history rarely seen in such a comprehensive format, the show begins with some obvious inclusions, like Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, before moving into unexpected territory. Who knew that Bauhaus darling László Moholy-Nagy stole inspiration for his geometric creations from the scratched circular surface of a vinyl record? Or that, more recently, Ragnar Kjartansson was the lead singer of a highly successful Icelandic electro-pop boyband in the early 2000s, called Trabant?

Admittedly, what first piqued my interest in Double Lives was how the museum’s curators would accommodate an exhibition entirely about music. A headset here, a sound room there. Music and sound installations have slowly made their way into museums over the past few decades, but few institutions have dared to devote their entire square footage to aural experiences. Naturally, there’s always the question of how to best present sound-based work in galleries built to house visual art. More importantly, though, how can curators capture the qualities of improvisation and witnessing that make live performance so compelling?

The solution at Mumok is quirky, to say the least. Sporting an impressive amount of projectors scattered across two floors of enormous galleries, the exhibition’s curators have created a floor plan that has visitors weaving through the viewing space of other visitors. Incidentally, viewing the works on display becomes an awkward, wonderful joy. There’s nothing quite like watching Yoko Ono shout-sing “Voice Piece for Soprano” (1961, 2010) as another museum goer sheepishly creeps across the project’s frame, unknowing of the audible madness in your ears.

Tiptoeing around the exhibition, there is a clear division between artists with prodigious music chops and those who are more interested in experimenting with instruments that fuel their artistic output. Someone who falls squarely in the middle of these two categories is the American avant-garde composer, Laurie Anderson. Shown here is the artist’s 1981 breakout hit, “O Superman.” As part of a larger series, called United States, the song addresses how technology and communications have affected the American psyche. Anderson’s song relies heavily on a vocoder (because, the ’80s) to outline a stream-of-consciousness tale of Americana, militaristic patriarchy, and the oncoming techno-apocalypse. What’s not to like? The music video is similarly trippy. It contains a leather-suited Anderson making deliberately robotic hand motions like a deranged flight attendant who should’ve been cast in The Matrix. I would say it’s an unsettling image, but Anderson’s frequent smirks to the camera tell the viewer to take her dogmatic image of the future in stride.

Exhibition view of Double Lives. Photo: Klaus Pichler © mumok

Another highlight from the exhibition is Nam June Paik’s “New Television Workshop Performance” (1971) with Charlotte Moorman. That work builds off of the artist’s established oeuvre examining the phosphorescent glow of old television screens, commenting on the attention-grabbing nature of American media.

Elsewhere, Double Lives contains recordings where artists clearly appropriate their own aesthetic for the benefit of their live performances. The psychedelic-punk band Destroy All Monsters is a clear example. Formed by artists Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, Niagara (Lynn Rovner), and filmmaker Cary Loren when they were students at the University of Michigan, Destroy All Monsters often performed with a rough-and-tumble aesthetic. For a band whose instruments once included a vacuum cleaner and a coffee can, it may come as no surprise that the videos that the band projected behind them at performances were similarly abrasive. In what appears to be an artistic collaboration with Jim Shaw at the helm, viewers would see a flash of images: hastily drawn comic book figures, the decaying flesh of animals, a lights show.

Seeing these enticingly chaotic spectacles on view in Double Lives tells the untold story of these artist-musician hybrids, but it feels like just the beginning. If anything, Mumok’s exhibition indicates how necessary it is that cultural institutions begin taking music seriously.

Exhibition view of Double Lives. Photo: Klaus Pichler © mumok

The reviewer came to Vienna as a guest of the Vienna Tourist Board.

Double Lives continues at mumok (Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Vienna, Austria) through November 11.

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