The Role of Music in the Lives and Works of Visual Artists

August 5, 2018

The rise of experimental music at the beginning of the 20th century was closely related with the activity of the artists belonging to the avant-garde circle. From the contemporary perspective, their interest can be characterized as a multimedia one, since they produced hybrid works which resisted categorization. The tie between art and music established in those early days is not surprising, and aside from the actual musical scene, it enabled a solid ground for further investigations and explorations.

There are several examples of those early practices - Marcel Duchamp decided to use a specific compositional method by layering the principles of chance, while Luigi Russolo, one of the Futurists, designed his first noise instruments called Intonarumori. It is important to underline that these inventions were meant to be performed in public space with an audience, so the aspect of performativity has to be considered. Their projects featuring sound have indeed inspired generations to come, and the post-war avant-garde extended this phenomenon in particular, as well artists all the way up to present day.

One of the Vienna’s best-known institutions, Mumok, is now hosting an exhibition called Double Lives – Visual Artists Making Music. The idea was to expose an array of outstanding innovations, experiments and radical approaches to music by selecting a huge number of visual artists who were or still are musicians as well.

Luigi Russolo and Ugo Piatti with Intonarumori
Luigi Russolo and Ugo Piatti with Intonarumori, 1914/15. Black-white photograph, 127 x 177 mm. © Museo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto

The Lasting Tie Between Music and Art

One of the most prolific figures from the 1950s was John Cage, whose practice had an immense effect on the course of contemporary art. His approach and theoretical discourse were perhaps best embodied in his iconic musical score 4’33’’, as well with his lecturing activity at the Black Mountain College and later New School for Social Research in New York.

Deeply inspired by his practice, the proponents of Fluxus movement started releasing their ideas; Nam June Paik, one of the pioneers of video art and experimental music, produced a number of semi-musical performances and one of them, dating 1964 and created with Charlotte Moorman, dealt with the insertion of the theme of sexuality in the field of contemporary music and visual arts.

On the similar trail are the doings of Gerhard Rühm, an artist who devotedly worked with repetitive an minimal music. Famous is his piece from 1952 titled onetonepiece. Apparently triggered by such explorations, Yves Klein produced Monotone Symphony – Silence (1947/1960) for choir and orchestra, based on the twenty minutes long sound fields of silence.

Other artists such as Hermann Nitsch or Charlemagne Palestine, worked on reductive and minimal principles in an attempt to explore the notion of musical composition and time.

Gunter Brus and Hermann Nitsch - Selten gehörte Musik
Günter Brus and Hermann Nitsch - Selten gehörte Musik, Konzert in der Städtischen Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München, 1974 (Rarely heard music, concert in the Municipal Gallery in Lenbachhaus, Munich, 1974). Photo: Karin Mack © mumok/Bildrecht Wien, 2018

The Installment

Aside from the aforementioned experiments from the beginning of the 20th century and the founding fathers of post-war experimental music, the superbly immersive installment showcases the works of various artists from the 1960s to present day who connected music and art. In order to understand better the continuity of the radical practices, it is important to mention that the sixth decade brought a new interest in other genres which was in accordance with the rebellious ideological and social standpoints of the times (sexual revolution and student movement from 1968), as well as new media such as performance, video, and installation.

The artists experimented largely with jazz, free jazz, and rock in order to expand new horizons and confront musical and representational canons. Seldom Heard Music was a project by artists from the circle of the Wiener Gruppe and the Vienna Actionists focused on deliberate dilettante music production. The collaboration of Mayo Thompson and the artists’ group Art & Language was embodied in the band The Red Crayola which worked with musical errors and mistakes.

The activity of Alan Vega and the Suicide gave wings to a later punk movement, while the iconic British group Throbbing Gristle abandoned all the possible norms and founded industrial music as a specific genre.

On the other hand, the 1970s feminist movement empowered women, so the mid-1980s brought more and more artists who performed whether solo like Laurie Anderson or in a band like Pipilotti Rist with Les Reines Prochaines.

The 1990s were marked by the period of stylistic pluralism which means that a number of practices became present - from sampling and montage to DJing, so the artistic figures like Christian Marclay, Alva Noto or Wolfgang Tillmans became quite active and simultaneously with their visual art practices, they were acknowledged as musicians.

Les Reines Prochaines - Programm Blut Syrup of Life
Les Reines Prochaines - Programm "Blut Syrup Of Life", 2013. Photo: Gaspard Weissheimer © Gaspard Weissheimer

Double Lives at Mumok

The exhibition also features a chronological survey on the musical activity of Austrian visual artists, from the mentioned proponents of the Viennese Actionsm from the 1960s, over The Hotel Morphila Orchester, founded by Peter Weibel and Loys Egg in 1978, to Molto Brutto or Graf/ZYX formations from the 1980s on, including, and the younger generation with Beauties of the Night and Essachai Vow.

After all stated above, it is apparent that Double Lives represents some form of an archive, an attempt to show the continuity of radical artistic practices and their extension expressed through music. Therefore, the show is of great importance for the history of the twentieth and twenty-first-century music. In addition to better understanding of the works and the context, an internet catalog is available to the wider public where information of all artworks and the artists can be found.

This outstanding exhibition curated by Edek Bartz and Eva Badura-Triska will be on display at Mumok in Vienna until 11 November 2018 and it will be followed by a dense and exciting program of live performances, which can be found on the museum's web page.

Double Lives - Mumok

Featured images: Installation views, Double Lives. Visual Artists Making Music at mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. Photo: Klaus Pichler © mumok. All images © and courtesy mumok Vienna.

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