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The record – it's more than just vinyl

There are so many ways we can listen to music. Usually the easiest these days is playing tunes on a digital gadget such as a phone or laptop. It wasn’t that long ago when we had to make a trip to the local record store to stock up on the latest hits.

The current exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery, The Record: Contemporary Art And Vinyl, shows how the flat black disk and the sleeve that holds can do so much more than just play music.

Walking around in the Henry Art Gallery’s exhibit, which is called The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, my mind goes back to when I was 13. I suddenly saw my mother’s Beatles albums as art. I got out the hammer, a few nails and hung them up.

Well, this show takes that same idea and runs with it in all sorts of crazy, creative directions. It features 99 works inspired by vinyl. One of the cornerstone artists for this exhibit is Christian Marclay, an artist who divides his time between New York and London.

Back in the 1980’s he created hundreds of collages out of records. Who knew they could be so colorful: pink, blue, orange, white. Marclay took different records, such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the soundtrack to the Walt Disney movie Cinderella and sliced them up like pieces of pie. He mixed them up and glued back together. At the Henry, they sit under glass, but in an old documentary Marclay plays a few of them.

“Depending on how I cut it every crack, every click, becomes part of the music."

Not too far from Marclay’s vinyl collages, there is a video called “Walter Repairing Records. Walter is an elderly African American man in Mississippi.  It was filmed by artist Ralph Lemon. Luis Croquor, the Henry’s deputy director of art put Walter and Christian Marclay’s work near each other for a reason.

“This man has made it his mission in life to find broken records and fix them back together with duct tape. So he’s doing something really similar to what Christian was doing but in a very rudimentary way so they’re not to be played again. He’s fixing them up to make them okay in some way.”

The Record includes lots of objects constructed from vinyl: old Billie Holiday albums melted and turned into buttons for thrift store clothing. A Patsy Cline single I Fall To Pieces sliced to a thread and put on a spool, ready to sew. There are also fantasy album covers that artists created for records that have never existed.

You’ll also find the seven foot photomontage of David Byrne and his band mates that was used for the Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings And Food from 1978.

For a few days last month the show took visitors back to the basics with artist Michael Dixon from Olympia. Dixon was making, regular, traditional, records. The music was a moody track performed by the Fruit Bats. On the day we met Dixon stood in front of two large grey, metal machines, just outside the museum’s lobby. They looked like industrial strength record players.

“I cut records on 1940s presto 6-n records lathes. And these were really popular in radio stations in the 1940’s and the 1950’s. They are easy to find parts for and they run forever.”

Dixon usually sticks with black vinyl, but can make a record out of just about anything.

“I make records out of picnic plates, laser disks. I’ve even make a record out of chocolate. It sounded pretty good and it was delicious too!”

For Dixon, who has his own small record label, albums and the cover art are still very relevant today. He loves how tangible the package is, something that is sacrificed when  we download digitally.

“If you just download it and you’ve got this one inch by one inch on your ipod, no liner notes, you barely get the track listing; you don’t get any liner notes. The art is nothing. But with vinyl you have this 1 foot by 1 foot thing that you have to interact with.”

A lot of people feel this way. That’s why, Seattle based record label Sub Pop Records puts out a new album every time one of its artists has a release. They are all pressed by a company in California. Chris Jacobs, the general Manager, pulls out an album by Shabazz Palaces.

“It kind of looks like a purple bowling ball. And this record too, this is the Beach House record we put out in May. You can get it on black vinyl and white vinyl and glow in the dark vinyl.”

That’s right, a glow in the dark record. Back at the Henry, artist Michael Dixon says he has 3-thousand albums in his collection. If you’re wondering what that would look like stacked in a neat pile just check out the first piece in The Record exhibit. It’s a sculpture by Peruvian Artist William Cordova called Greatest Hits. Three-thousand records, one of top of the other, creates a 13-foot tower.