Art review: Charles Gaines' 'Manifestos' at UCLA Hammer Museum
Given the stunning backdrop of recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen -- and perhaps elsewhere in the turbulent Middle East in coming days -- Charles Gaines' exceptional multimedia installation "Manifestos" assumes an unanticipated resonance. Topical relevance makes the complex suite of digital videos, musical compositions and drawings, executed in 2008, even more compelling than it already is.
Economic frustration, political grievance and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are not the subject of this stand-out work, which is included in "All of this and nothing," a large UCLA Hammer Museum group show currently on view. Instead, the nexus of art, liberty, social opportunity and personal dignity is.
Like the late Conceptual artist Sol Lewitt, who employed purely logical systems to create mysteriously poetic, abstract wall drawings, Gaines begins with an orderly process. As a viewer watches a predetermined system unfold, step by logical step, moving and elusive wonderment is produced.
The piece is composed of excerpts from four revolutionary manifestos of the 20th century. Each famous document insists, in its own way, on the inalienable right and social necessity of freedom, as well as the personal power inherent in self-determination.
The texts are taken from manifestos issued in Europe by the International Socialist Congress a century ago, and by the student-driven Situationist International in France and Black Panther Party in the United States, during the 1960s' counterculture movement. (The last two coincide with the coming-of-age of Gaines, now 66.) Finally, the 1990s saw the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rock southern Mexico.
It's worth noting that all four social movements were catapulted by modern media. The first coexisted with the invention of the film newsreel. The three more recent ones are impossible to imagine without the intimate reach of television into far-flung living rooms.
So, Gaines' circumspect use of multimedia digital technology in "Manifestos" is apt. The excerpts appear as texts scrolling up sequentially on four thin flat-screen televisions, placed side by side. They stand on chest-high minimalist pedestals built from medium-density fiberboard. The technological is held aloft by the proletarian.
The four texts that scroll by on-screen in Gaines' work alternate, from left to right, between white-on-black and black-on-white. Once the sequence has finished, all four begin to scroll in concert.
And here, "concert" is the operative term.
Gaines has composed a musical score for each manifesto. He translated the texts into musical notation using letters of the alphabet that correspond to musical notes. The scores appear as framed, five-foot-tall sheet music, carefully drawn in pencil and installed around the room.
The music is as orderly, systematic and unromantic as everything else in the piece. Forget the stirring, soaring sentiment of national anthems: Reliance on a rigorous system removes individual artistic taste and flights of fancy from the equation. Oddly egalitarian, the system puts the artist and the audience on equal footing.
As each text scrolls by on the television screen, flanking digital-stereo speakers play an exquisite recording of a piano quintet performing the accompanying music. Because many of the texts' letters, plus all the spaces between words, are noted as rests, Gaines' musical tempo is slow and stately.
The scrolling on-screen text is easy to read -- "we want freedom," "we have been denied the most elemental preparation," "enough is enough," etc. -- while the piano and strings assume an almost melancholic dignity. There is no jarring cacophony.
Even when all four texts begin to scroll at once, with the four musical accompaniments layered on each other simultaneously, the music is surprisingly lovely. The complex concert is a wistful, even somber hymn to human struggles -- to dreams of equality that are an on-going process, not lost causes.
One reason "Manifestos" works so well is that it does not advocate for specific texts. Gaines may or may not subscribe to explicit claims made in any or all of them, but the piece considers a manifesto in larger, more expansive and wholly flexible terms.
Rather than narrow doctrine, it's a public declaration of motives and intentions. As the music plays, who can argue with the demonstrated value of freedom, adequate preparation for life and the mitigation of misery?
"The narrative of serial art," Lewitt once said, "works more like music than like literature." Gaines' "Manifestos" takes that idea to heart. The installation makes actual music out of a serial reading of powerful literary statements.
Against the courageous background of noisy tumult on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, being experienced elsewhere around the world as bursts of text across computer monitors and smart-phones and chaotic images on television screens, Gaines' imposing, impressive video-music strikes a deep and powerful chord. In music, a movement is a self-contained section of an extended composition; and, this work avers, so it is for social movements too.
'All of this and nothing,' UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through April 24. Closed Monday. www.hammer.ucla.edu
Recent and related:
Photos: Charles Gaines, "Manifestos," 2008, multimedia. Credit: Brian Forrest / UCLA Hammer Museum