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Play Along: Ensemble at the ICA in Philadelphia

Angela White
Angela White, three turntables and michael jackson

Ensemble
The Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania
118 South 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA
7 September - 16 December 2007

Thwang, bonnngggg, thwap, clink-clink, and "Hello, Yoko."

These are just some of the sounds you'll hear and one of the things you might get to say at Ensemble, a show of sound art curated by Christian Marclay at the ICA in Philadelphia. Marclay's has let the sense of whimsy that informs much of his own work do the same for the exhibition, letting that spirit run deliciously rampant for this show of 27 artists.

But as usual it's not all fun and games with Marclay. The assault of so many pieces in one room provides a tension that soars and eases depending on the number of visitors in the room. More subtle works share the space with louder, one-trick-ponies (but what tricks!). Some pieces are interactive while some are on their own; yet, all roads lead to sound. The works that are interactive (about half of them) imply that the titular ensemble isn't complete without an audience.

The doorway to this sonic feast is Mineko Gimmer's gentle, but hefty, gauntlet, Bamboo Forest. In sharp contrast directly in front of the entryway is Jon Kessler's paranoid Sniper #10, in which surveillance technology is used to immediately recontextualize the image of the viewer to disorienting effect. Two other unsettling, albeit hilarious, works are Dennis Oppenheim's Attempt to Raise Hell and Yoshi Wada's The Alarming Trash Can, both of which were a blast to watch to observe as museum goers discovered the surprises they held. Less assaultive surprises await in Doug Aitken's many timbred K-N-O-C-K-O-U-T, and Katje K├Âlle's Staccato (americano). Evan Holloway's Victory Song is the simplest and most elegant of Rube Goldberg's with only one action involving a brass ball rolling on a rack with the sound focused through a phonograph horn. The spirit of Ensemble is best exemplified by Yoko Ono's Phone Piece, a phone on the wall that Ono calls occasionally to speak with whoever happens to pick up the receiver.

Another of the highlights of the exhibit is David Ellis's ingenious Trash Talk. His assemblage will look and sound familiar to anyone living in an urban area: a line of trash against a wall complete with an unexplained rustling. Ellis orchestrates these seemingly random sounds to eventually congeal into a jaunty polyrhythmic mass. However, the standout of the show is Angela White's mesmerizing three turntables and michael jackson. Her sculpture in a group show at Kim Foster Gallery earlier this year was a revelation, and the piece in Ensemble is even more complex and beautiful in it's construction and music. Plus, the Michael Jackson turntable is hilarious, and more than a little scary.

Underscoring all of this action is the constant rhythm of Martin Creed's Work No. 223: Three metronomes beating time, one quickly, one slowly, and one neither quickly nor slowly. It's a tiny anchor of sorts in a sea full of sound. As in any ensemble these 27 sound works play off each other in an ever-evolving movement. The song isn't complete here until the listener plays along. Do.

One consistent experience I've had at the ICA over the years is that it is always worth the trip. Yes, I usually combine the visit with a round of the galleries or the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I always leave the ICA thinking one thing: I would have hopped the train just to see this. And I haven't even mentioned the little wonder of a 10-year retrospective of photographer Eileen Neff's work (now I have). One more reason to get on the train.