Guitar Drag, 2000 © Christian Marclay. Photo courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and originally commissioned by Artpace, San Antonio

Before arriving in Texas for his Artpace residency in 1999, Christian Marclay was on an airplane, looking through Time Magazine’s “Pictures of the Year.” One of the photos was deceivingly simple: the back of a pickup truck with Texas license plates. But when Marclay read the caption, the image stayed with him. It was the truck used in the murder of James Byrd, Jr.

In Jasper, Texas, 1998, three white supremacists tied Byrd by his feet to the back of a truck and drug him to death. The 14-minute video and sound installation at Artpace’s Hudson Showroom, “Guitar Drag” (2000) reenacts this murder using a Fender guitar. This video/sound installation is played in a blackened room, where there is no light or sound except from the art itself. This renders the audience captive to what plays out before them, a retracing of the event as told by guitar, the wailing, crying, raging, screaming instrument used by countless artists to channel the unnamable revolutionary energy of blues and rock.

Christian Marclay
Christian Marclay

In a haunting introductory scene, Marclay prepares for the crime. He knots rope 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, that sits on the back of the truck. He plays a few almost accidental strums, evoking the anthropomorphic qualities of the instrument, as well as its preciousness, so much like a person, capable of good and bad. Then, with the amp turned up, Marclay drags the guitar through the South Texas landscape.

The resulting soundtrack from this reenactment is so powerful that the renowned rock music critic, Greil Marcus, included it as one of the top ten in his book, “The History of Rock and Roll in 10 Songs.”

“Guitar Drag” reverberates with meaning. The aural definition of reverb means the echo of sound in its acoustic surroundings. The actual sound of “Guitar Drag” – grating, loud, and disruptive – evokes the horror of Byrd’s death. Yet it is the creation of this art and its screening that reverberates especially today, during the eruption of protests against continued hate crimes and the unnecessary deaths of so many young African-American men.

Hate crime plays a role in “Guitar Drag,” but there are many other layers as well, which is typical of Marclay’s art. The simple connections Marclay makes produce complex results, like a chemical reaction when something new is made from the combination.

The exhibit is up until Aug. 30.

Marclay, who lives in London and New York, works primarily with music and sound, but also sculpture, painting, and printmaking. He reenergizes sound as a radical art form with cultural, sociological and political implications. Historically, his treatment of music reinforces the understanding of it as sound. Through his performances and art, Marclay questions what is legitimate, altering official laid-down tracks, that he describes as “recorded for posterity,” frustrating their intended play, combining and colliding them into new, live experiences.

Marclay’s earlier works involve breaking up vinyl records and then reassembling the pieces from the varied discs into collages of new sounds. The destruction of instruments has played out throughout rock history — think Jimi Hendrix or the Who. Artists like Nam June Paik, who was part of the Fluxus movement, also destroyed instruments. Fluxus artists considered themselves “anti-art,” as they defied the art world’s commercialism. Another inspiration is the playful trickster, Marcel Duchamp. Like Duchamp, Marclay’s art is clever and conceptual.

"Footstompin," (1991) by Christian Marclay.
“Footstompin,” (1991) by Christian Marclay.

In similar fashion, Marclay thwarts a sound or instrument’s intended use. In “Secret” (1988) he recorded a secret on a disc and then padlocked it so that, in order to hear the secret, the disc has to be destroyed. At the Artpace residency, he built a drum set with cymbals so high they would be unreachable to the drummer.

Also up at Artpace:

Window Works
Katie Pell, “Bitchen Diorama”
(2006 Artpace resident.)

The final two Hudson (Show)Room and Window Works exhibitions for Artpace’s 20th anniversary season are:

Hudson (Show)Room
Luz Maria Sanchez, “diaspora”
Sept. 10 – Jan. 3, 2016
(2006 Artpace resident.)

Window Works
Cruz Ortiz, “But still I’d leap in front of a flyin’ bullet for you” (titled unconfirmed)
(2005 Artpace resident.)

*Featured/top image: Guitar Drag, 2000 © Christian Marclay. Photo courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and originally commissioned by Artpace, San Antonio.

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Wendy Weil Atwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002. Atwell is the author of The River Spectacular...