C. Spencer Yeh, "Standard Definition"

cover image In the first solo museum exhibit of C. Spencer Yeh, the prolific musician and sound artist shows off his more personal and playful side. The two installations and two videos show him equally at home in the halls of a gallery as he is on stage or on a record, and marks another milestone in his ever growing body of work.


Contemporary Arts Center

The three large close-up video projections of Spencer’s face were the first thing I was drawn to when walking into the gallery. One was on the wall behind me, the other two in front. Weird vocal utterances emanated from the speakers placed beneath each, ranging from insectile to monkish overtone throat singing. The piece is called “IMVIS: Infinite Modular Vocal Interaction System (Eliza Study No.3)” and is comprised of 99 randomly rotating clips of Spencer Yeh demonstrating his vast repertoire of vocal technique.

With the camera(s) so close to his face(s), watching and listening to him was a very intimate experience. His sounds were made with closed eyes, giving me the ability to really focus in on his lips, his throat, and his tongue: the mechanisms of speech and song. While Spencer makes extensive use of his voice in his live shows and on his many recordings, it is often treated electronically with guitar pedals and other effects. “IMVIS” gives a straight take of his voice, and he sings in the round with himself, creating peculiar aleatoric patterns as the 99 clips randomly interact with each other. His emotive lexicon partakes of both the alien and familiar, and within it is embedded a strong childlike element. It comes out in the way gives himself free rein to blubber with his lips, trilling fanciful words, screams, gasps, and rasps in ways that most adults wouldn’t give themselves over to. I find this to be a refreshing impulse in the world of contemporary art.

In an adjacent darkened room is another installation, this one without a video component. The piece “Au Passage” is based around a recording of a live show performed with NYC based artist Amy Granat at the Paris Café in 2007. By taking the source material and mixing it into four speakers placed overhead in the corners of the room, Spencer attempts to remove the listener from the usual perspective as an audience member, and instead puts them on stage into the auditory headspace of the performer. In doing so he shows his concern for the dynamics of live performance. The spatial aspects of the music are further enhanced by supplementing additional guitar, and processing the original music through guitar pedals and computer effects. Reclined on the provided couch with my eyes closed I quickly lost track of time amidst the squealing bowed violin, what sounded like flutes or pipes, and clamorous percussion that reminded me of chains and anchors being dragged over the wooden side of an old ship. Sounds like wind blowing against a microphone faded in and out as they moved around the room. My only complaint is that “Au Passage” was placed too close to “Imvis” and sounds from both frequently intruded upon each other.

The other two works in the show are music videos. “Baby Birds” gives another intimate look at Spencer’s body and the sound of his voice, this time with a view of his throat from just outside his wide open mouth. He multiplies the image of his mouth five times on the screen. The video has a quality to it that is very surgical. The mouths are relatively static except for the minute wavering of his smooth pink tongue and the oscillations of ululating uvula. Occasionally one opens or closes. The sounds (this time on headphones) are closer to the cackling surface noise of dusty vinyl, and the wheezing breath of a chronic smoker. I can hear why it is called “Baby Birds” too in the way he transforms his voice into the plaintive cries of the young birds waiting for their parents to bring them fresh worms, something to eat, beaks open wide.

The other video is a computer animation he created for the Deerhoof song “Buck and Judy ” off of their 2008 album “Offend Judy.” Its pixilated images give homage to the digital worlds of early videogames. It tells a story of meat, fruit, and love. It is an epic battle of orange and banana balloons against little grey warriors armed with catapults and maces. A green blob with lobster claws fights an equally menacing metal robot creature with pizza saw blades. It is a sad story and does not end well for Buck and Judy. The vibrant colors of the video and fun yet creepy storyline match Deerhoof’s catchy pop poetics very well, making it one of the best music videos I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year.

Standard Definition ” will be on view in Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center until January 24th, 2010.