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s i l E N t H o U r g l A s s : N o s tA l g i A i N M A r C l Ay ’ s C yA N ot y P E s Aviv Hilbig-Bokaer ’17


“ n everyday life we are inclined to be enthusiastic about everything blue, from the deep blue of the sea or the deeper depths of blue in a woman’s eyes.”1 So begins an article that seemingly could be a review of Christian Marclay’s spectacular cyanotype Unwound Cassette Tape (fig. 38). This quote, however, predates Marclay’s cyanotype work by over one hundred years. Appearing in an essay about cyanotypes in the January 1900 issue of The Photo-Miniature, this reaction encourages us to think deeply about the historical references in Marclay’s cyanotypes as well as the ways in which contemporary cyanotype artists look to the past for inspiration. Conceptions of time are a major theme in Marclay’s work: the shape of the falling tape fiche makes allusions to an hourglass that reminds the viewer of impending expiration. The form of the object presents itself as the nexus between life and death, whose trajectory is set by this metaphorical hourglass. Standing at just under five feet tall, this work evokes obvious connections to the human body. Yet, in its presentation of life, Unwound Cassette Tape must ultimately confront inevitable death. As he brings together time and existence, Marclay makes a striking claim: the past is a trace, the future is an infinite expanse, and the present is fully human. The audiocassette tape iconography presented throughout Marclay’s entire cyanotype oeuvre and particularly in Unwound Cassette Tape is connected to the artist’s fondness of audio technology, but it is ultimately something much more than that. Marclay was born in Marin, California, and raised in Switzerland during a time of drastic change for both audio and photographic mediums. The advent of the Polaroid and the shift toward digital marked watershed moments for the worlds that Marclay would soon enter. Marclay approached the world of music through his formal art training at the Massachusetts College of Art in the late 1970s and has maintained a steady finger on the pulse of both visual and auditory mediums throughout his expansive career.

Like sand passing through an hourglass, sound has a duration but then expires. As Marclay notes, “I’m attracted to the feeling of loss that you get from images that try to represent sound. The main thing missing in the image of a sound is the sound itself. We know that photography is a medium that cannot capture sound. All it can capture are visual traces—the residues of something invisible, just as words on a page are the traces of an invisible thought.”2 This emptiness of sound is amplified by the Prussian blue expanse of the cyanotype medium. An hourglass makes no sound; however, it does sound a silent yet urgent alarm. The past, only available to us in traces, and the future, already measured out in fiche, urge the viewer to revel, if only for a moment, in the beauty of the silence and stasis. In his cyanotypes—made at Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida since 2007—Marclay is not merely engaging the question of sound.3 He is also making a direct reference to the past and the early artists who used the cyanotype technique. Art historian Noam Elcott highlighted the similarities between Marclay’s work and that of early cyanotype pioneers, in particular that of Anna Atkins (see fig. 18).4 Elcott noted the death of the subject matter that occurs in both Atkins’s and Marclay’s cyanotypes. Just as Atkins removed algae and ferns from their natural environments and suspended them where they did not belong in order to eternalize them, Marclay memorialized these cassette tapes in a metaphorical ocean. While the cassette itself is killed in order to create the work, the long-ignored cyanotype process is resurrected, if only for a moment, at the hands of Marclay and his contemporaries. The legible representation of the subject in Unwound Cassette Tape is a distinct departure from Marclay’s cyanotype contemporaries. German photographer Marco Breuer’s inventive cyanotypes hark back to twentiethcentury abstraction in painting. Breuer’s Untitled (E-33) is interested in non-representational imagery that invites the viewer into the cyanotype process (fig. 39).5 In contrast, Marclay’s work focuses on the subtlety and

Fig. 38: Christian Marclay, American and swiss, born 1955, Unwound Cassette tape, 2012, cyanotype, Courtesy of Elizabeth and Michael Marcus © Christian Marclay 76

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period  

Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period Edited by Nancy Kathryn Burns, Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Kristina Wilson...