Interruption & Resistance

The following is a critical review of two works on display at the Met Breuer, written for a NYU course “Art History Since 1945.” We were asked to choose one work—one that we were interested in and one that we were not, and to write about them, in relation to class readings. In doing so, I actually became more interested in the concept behind the second piece than I had originally been when viewing it(!)


Home is a Foreign Place: Recent Acquisitions in Context at The Met Breuer

Home is a Foreign Place is a wonderful show at the Met Breuer that combines contemporary art from “iconic” Western artists with that of artists from South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia in an attempt to weave together parallel histories and cultural themes. As I navigated through the exhibition to the second full gallery, an object to my left just barely caught my eye. Upon first glance, this specific object can come across as seemingly bland and two-dimensional as it is a white painting in disguise (unless you are interested, as I am, in Agnes Martin-esque works). However, it is perfectly placed in this transitional stage of the gallery, knowing you must walk past it in order to get to the next room. It had an unexpected shine. n/eighty nine (2016) by Prabhavathi Meppayil (b. 1965) is neither painting nor sculpture, though perhaps at best a very minimal assemblage. It is an object (48x60in.) made from copper wire embedded in gesso panel. Gesso is a white paint mixture that is usually treated as merely a base preparation for other materials. The wire is lain carefully, so that there are constellations of horizontally parallel wires of mostly the same length, and then some slightly longer wires to spatially break up the clustered patterns. 

n/eighty nine  by Prabhavathi Meppayil

n/eighty nine by Prabhavathi Meppayil

In Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” he mentioned that as art entered new eras following modernism, new materials and recent inventions--things never used in art before--were making their way into works. This work by Meppayil forces you to think about materials and process, is dependent on movement and light, and it’s not a “painting” of anything. And though this work technically isn’t completely flat, it is perceived that way to the spectator and echoes Clement Greenberg’s testament that “paintings” were entering a new period of definitive flatness. Rather the ‘flatness’ of this object may exist from only one way of experiencing it. Head-on, Meppayil’s work appears uninteresting, but the positive experience comes from one’s time in three-dimensional space with the object.

       The craftiness of this work calls on familial and cultural ties of the artist--”She combines Minimalist abstraction with centuries-old artisanal techniques informed by her family’s long history working as goldsmiths in Bangalore” (Wall text, n/eighty nine). While the work is from just three years ago, I cannot help but to contextualize the use of copper in relation to India’s production of the resource being pushed to meet industrial demand in the 80s. She is effortlessly melding industrial metal, personal history and Western minimal aesthetics into a singular piece. Meppayil’s work has been described by Deepak Ananth as “process-oriented,” as much of it involves an aesthetic of repeated actions--whether it is laying many thin copper wires into gesso panel, or making tiny indents (“thinnam”) with different metal tools (Ananth, Horizons of Silence: Nasreen Mohamedi and Prabhavathi Meppayil). The way the copper catches the light as you move around this work calls you to move in closer, and to inspect the object from many different angles. It is interesting even to view Meppayil’s work from the side, in order to better catch the wires. From far away, and even in photographs, it is nearly impossible to see the delicate and meticulous aspect of this work, and to notice the subtle imperfection of the gesso in resistance to the metallic fineness of the copper as your eyes move across the surface. It is a quiet work that relies on opticality as much as the spectator’s physical movement in space. The object’s description in the Met Breuer also mentions another dimension--temporality. “As copper wires oxidize over time, they turn shades of blue and green, enacting a form of visual resistance against the white background” (Wall text, n/eighty nine). There’s a sort of resistance or refusal of the copper both existing within this work as a forein object (to both the gesso and to the idea of a “painting”), and this mention of an element of change unto an unchanging base. This description also brings attention to its relationship not only to Glenn Ligon’s work in another room of the exhibition boldly declaring “I feel most colored thrown against a sharp white background,” but to the time-based experience that defines the spectator’s relationship to the work. 

While Meppayil’s work subtly calls attention to itself, I found another work in Home is a Foreign Place to work in almost the opposite way. Almost physically diagonal from each other in the gallery was Edward Krasiński’s (1925-2004) 1983 Intervention made with acrylic paint on wood, and tape (39 3/8 × 38 3/16 × 5 11/16 in). Interestingly enough, the Met Breuer website classifies this work as both a “painting,” and “sculpture.” This object is the coalescence of three fragmented parts--the most simple aspect is the right side, where there is a painting of a white rectangular prism with a black background. This painting is layered three-dimensionally in front of another part: a black painted rectangular surface that has a rectangular cut-out in its center, making it seem like it is a thick painted frame and creating another prism using the white space behind it, and its shadows. The first painting occupies space in front of the ‘frame,’ casting a shadow behind it. The cut-out in the second part of the work casts a more centrally located shadow. The third aspect of the work is a singular, long blue stretch of tape that runs through the middle of the object, and at the same height throughout the rest of the room in the gallery--even through works by other artists!

Intervention  1983 by Edward Krasiński

Intervention 1983 by Edward Krasiński

While the painted portions of this object are relatively simple and frankly uninteresting, I am drawn to the three-dimensionality of this work, and most significantly to the affect of the blue tape. While Meppayil’s ‘foreign object’ (the copper) was elusive, Krasiński’s blue tape becomes the most overbearing and visually penetrative force in the room. Michael Fried may have described this use of the tape as positing a sort of “theatricality” causing the work to obscure the definitions of its supposed medium inhibition. It physically interrupts the space and affect of all other objects, while at the same time forces all of these objects to merge into a singular experience for the spectator. Intervention came right around the time postmodernism was on the scene. A characteristic of postmodernist art I had in mind while viewing this work was that it transcends anything that might have been imagined at the most extreme moments of what came before it in time. If I were to guess, I would have believed that all the works in the room were crafted by the same artist--it is not ordinary for one artist to intentionally disrupt the work or space of another artist in a shared gallery. This work more readily challenges historically definitions of painting and sculpture as it exists as both a “painting” and something else, and it has a significant reliance on three-dimensionality and the use of space. In the description of Intervention at the Met Breuer, it is stated that “Krasiński explored the relationship between the viewer and objects in space… the tape passes over an axonometric drawing--a geometric rendering of a 3D object on a 2D surface--in a playful linear gesture that literally and conceptually fuses the artwork and the architectural space of the gallery” (Wall text, Intervention). I was moved to think of Judd’s comment about how three-dimensionality causes a work to “open to anything,” and both the subtle and extreme ways Krasiński’s work engaged with this sentiment (755). 

If Meppayil’s work was quiet, Krasiński’s was certainly loud. One draws you in close into itself, while another pushes you backwards to examine the entire room as one collective experience. In Robert Morris’s “Notes on Sculpture,” he talks about how new work has “expanded the terms” of their definition by emphasizing the conditions under which the objects are seen (231). Artists instill more control over the experience that spectators have over variables like light and space, which makes those elements of viewing the work more significant than earlier types of art. n/eighty nine so heavily relies on these variables. And the opticality of Intervention changes every time it is installed in a new space and overtakes new objects within it. The objects themselves however don’t simply become “less important,” it’s just that it is as much about these other variables and overall experience as the work in the space it occupies. 



Works Cited

Anath, Deepak. “Introduction - Excerpt from Horizons of Silence: Nasreen Mohamedi and Prabhavathi Meppayil.”

Prabhavathi Meppayil. http://www.prabhameppayil.in/biography.html 

Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. University of California Press. 1968. 

116-147.

Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” The New Art: A Critical Anthology. NY: Dutton, 1973) 100-110.

Judd, Donald. “Specific Objects.” Art in America 1945-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism,

Pop Art, and Minimalism. The Library of America. New York, NY. 2014. 755-763.

Morris, Robert. “Notes on Sculpture.” Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. University of California Press. 1968.

222-235.

Wall text, Intervention, Home is a Foreign Place, The Met Breuer, New York, NY.

Wall text, n/eighty nine, Home is a Foreign Place, The Met Breuer, New York, NY.





music notation (& realization) as a form of transduction

This project was done as a part of a group project for a NYU Graduate College of Arts and Sciences Music Department seminar called ‘Sound Technologies and State Power’ in Spring 2019. The project involved designing a sound exhibit related to class themes/readings; each participant chose a topic under the decided theme of ‘transduction’ and designed their own smaller portion of the exhibit.

From our rationale:
In a more quotidian setting, transducers are essential to creative endeavors— sound studios, music composition and various print & notation systems— that utilize the power of transduction to convert, transmit and store sonic happenings for future recall or dissemination. Though seemingly apolitical, these locations are deeply implicated in the cultural, political and social existence of communities and groups.

Transduction’ schema as related to music notation:
Sound (implied) → TRANSDUCTION (notation) → Sound (realized)

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Music notation exists as a form of transduction that involves an ‘implied’ sound. In composition or music copying, the music, or sound itself exists as an implied or imagined object that is then filtered through the event of music notation, a transducer that allows these sounds to then be transformed into a ‘realized’ sound by either live performers, non-live performers, or playback systems in notation software programs.

When discussing music notation, it is important to make clear the harmful or negative impact that can arise from suggesting that music is a ‘universal language.’ Dr. Mina Yang writes that “Western music’s ‘universal’ qualities have been invoked in the past to avow the superiority of European culture.” Western notation is only one language through which music can be understood, and is the system of colonizing powers that was passed or enforced on by missionaries, traders and political figures (both internal and external). When other, non-western musics are reconstructed or restated in western notation, it is almost always an act of erasure or misrepresentation of the original culture’s musical practices in some way. Some examples of this can be seen with Makam music (a system used in Arabic, Persian and Turkish music) which includes a unique and complex set of rules, as well as pitches and tunings that do not exist in Western music; and African music which contains rhythms and feels that simply cannot be realized by western notation. Flipped around, certain non-Western institutions have adopted western notation as a preemptive defense against cultural displacement of their own traditions--Yang writes ‘The reorganization of traditional institutions entrailed the nearly total displacement of indigenous cultural practices in favor of the scientific and rationalized principles of the West.” Politically, the representation of these musics by an external notation system filters it through an external voice that does not belong to the original speakers, or ‘owners’ of the sounds.

There are also other failures of music notation as a transducer--the act of writing music down in any system is mistakenly seen as ‘stable,’ though many elements leave room for error. Even when music is ‘authentically’ represented, there still exists the problem of performance practices and interpretation. In nearly every case, music notation exists as only a guide for performers--though some notational systems are stricter or looser than others. Traditional Chinese Gongche notation, Medieval chant represented by neumes, and jazz fake books are all types of musical notation systems that exist as skeleton guides for performers who are trained in specific performance practices to follow & realize. More recently, Graphic notation involves composers both giving up control and the dismantling of a ‘standardized’ system of notes and rhythms that offers different freedoms to performers, who are then tasked with improvising and creating the musical language from which to work with on their own.

While notation is seemingly able to exist as a stable and longstanding artifact through which musics can be transmitted both horizontally (among people of the same time) and vertically (or intergenerationally), Emma Patterson claims that “oral transmission was a sophisticated method used before as well as amidst music notation and it continues to be inextricably incorporated in music, language, tradition and culture.” Cultures that rely on oral traditions are often wrongfully stereotyped as ‘primitive,’ and oral practices are commonly referred to as existing before the ‘development of notation,’ but these practices are predicated on the coalescence of “transmission, synthesis, and culture,” always actively coexisting with written notation. Oral transmission is an act of memory and reconstruction, through which all music relies on for both performance practices, social sharing (like learning a song off Youtube, a CD or the radio) and in preservation work done by both scholars/historians and artists (like Jeremy Dutcher, who’s album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa features indigenous ancestral languages transcribed from wax cylinders).

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Below are texts accompanying items I would display (either aurally, visually or both) in the room of the exhibit should it come to fruition.

Gongche + Neume notations
Gongche is a traditional Chinese music notation that uses Chinese characters invented in the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries). It does not show durational values, but is coupled with separate markings written alongside the note characters to show relative lengths.

Neume notation is a basic system of Western notation prior to present-day staff notation. The symbols indicate the general shape but not exact durational values or rhythms. This notation was commonly used for chant, though for a long time this music survived on oral tradition and a specific performance practice. Similarly, Gongche notation was used for traditional Chinese music but leaves room for improvisation and relies on oral transmission in realization.

Gongche notation (three panels showing traditional Chinese characters vertically on a musical score.)

Gongche notation (three panels showing traditional Chinese characters vertically on a musical score.)

Neume notation (sheet music showing a small scene on the left. there are two people standing on either side of a tree. to the right there is neumatic notation and stylized text.)

Neume notation (sheet music showing a small scene on the left. there are two people standing on either side of a tree. to the right there is neumatic notation and stylized text.)


Wadada Leo Smith’s Symbolic Language + Cornelius Cardew Graphic Score
Graphic notation is music that is represented by non-standard systems of notation that use primarily visual representation that performers are to interpret and respond to. The desire can stem from a need to write something that cannot be communicated in any standard notation system, to achieve an undetermined/chance-based quality of sounds, and/or to give control to the performers, who are then free of the constraints and limitations of written standard notation systems.

Treatise (1963-67) is a graphic score piece by English composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981). It is over 190 pages long and features only lines and abstract shapes without any form of written instructions for performers to follow.

Wadada Leo Smith (b.1941) is a composer-performer and visual artist. Ankhrasmation is a collection of pieces using a specific language that he created. Unlike graphic scores that are largely ‘made up’ by the performer, there is a ‘correct’ way to read Wadada’s music, though the choices the performer makes in connecting the material is largely individualistic. He uses this specific language that makes the performance experience a collective/social experience founded upon decoding his compositional aesthetic.

a page of Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ (a graphic score showing lines, shapes and dots.)

a page of Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ (a graphic score showing lines, shapes and dots.)

a score from Wadada Leo Smith’s ‘Ankhrasmation’ (a language score. from left to write there are 4 different boxes. each box has different colors and symbols inside of it. there is a swirl running through the first three boxes and along the top in some more lines and shapes.)

a score from Wadada Leo Smith’s ‘Ankhrasmation’ (a language score. from left to write there are 4 different boxes. each box has different colors and symbols inside of it. there is a swirl running through the first three boxes and along the top in some more lines and shapes.)



‘Inventing’ African Rhythm
Kofi Agawu points out that “in most African languages, there is no word for rhythm, which in itself should disconcert those for whom ‘African music’ and ‘African rhythm’ have always seemed synonymous.” People so often associate this music with rhythm, the kinesthetic and the physical, and having far more social impetus than the music of the West. There is also a perception of these practices as more ‘primitive’ in comparison to the ‘advanced development’ of written standardized notation, because they rely primarily on oral transmission. Rhythm theorists describe African music as having multiple elements that separate it from that which can be represented by Western notation--unique cross-rhythms, spaces between pulses, the knitting together of the beat, and so on.

African rhythms represented by Western music notation

African rhythms represented by Western music notation



Jeremy Dutcher
Jeremy Dutcher is a classically trained indigenous composer-performer, musicologist & activist from Canada. His Juno-award winning album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa features a contemporary representation of traditional indigenous music. It features Dutcher singing in his ancestral language and realized transcriptions of wax cylinder recordings holding Wolastoqiyik people singing traditional songs. From the recordings, he pulls the voice of a First Nations man Jim Pauli who is featured on the song ‘Eqpahak,’ who says ‘When you bring the songs back, you’re going to bring the people back, you’re going to bring everything back.’ His album is a compelling example of how transcription/notation is intertwined with vertical oral transmission in reconstruction and remembering of both language and musical traditions.

‘ His Master’s Voice’ by Francis Barraud (1898) / (a painting of a white dog looking into a grammophone)

His Master’s Voice’ by Francis Barraud (1898) / (a painting of a white dog looking into a grammophone)

Album art for Jeremy Dutcher’s ‘Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa’ (2018) / (a photo of jeremy dutcher sitting in a chair with arm rests looking into a grammophone. the grammophone is sitting on a small table. there is a stool behind it, and in the background there is a mural of first nations people near a lake.)

Album art for Jeremy Dutcher’s ‘Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa’ (2018) / (a photo of jeremy dutcher sitting in a chair with arm rests looking into a grammophone. the grammophone is sitting on a small table. there is a stool behind it, and in the background there is a mural of first nations people near a lake.)


Sources Used:

Patterson, Emma E. “Oral Transmission: A Marriage of Music, Language, Tradition, and Culture,” Musical Offerings: Vol.6: No.1, Article 2 (2015): 35-45.

Scherzinger, Martin. “Notes on a Postcolonial Musicology: Kofi Agawu and the Critique of Cultural Difference [Agawu, Kofi. 2003. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York and London and London: Routledge, 304pp].”

Yang, Mina. “East Meets West in the Concert Hall: Asians and Classical Music in the Century of Imperialism, Post-Colonialism, and Multiculturalism,” Asian Music: Vol.38: No.1 (2007): 1-30.