Is a ball going to hit the Dos Equis can? If so, when? Would it be the red one or the white one? Will the trash can scraped with a bow ever stop sounding? Can that tone—shimmering, sustained, somehow cosmically inclined—really be coming from just an empty metal cylinder?
These are some of the questions that could have been mulled Wednesday night at the Whitney Museum, where Christian Marclay and the cellist Okkyung Lee performed in the presence of Alexander Calder’s Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, a mobile sculpture from the early 1930s. Part of ongoing programming related to “Calder: Hypermobility,” an endearing and dynamic exhibit on the museum’s top floor, the performance took place in the third-floor theater, where an audience of a few dozen assembled in seats in the round. (Another performance followed Thursday and a final one is scheduled for Friday night.) At the center was the hanging artwork and some more or less randomly placed objects on the floor: glass bottles, a wooden box, ceramic vases, a Mrs. Fields cookie tin.
As the lights dimmed, Marclay walked out and, with a tap of one of the two balls—red and white, differently weighted, and suspended in perfect counterpoise—got the sculpture moving. But lo, a mishap! Or at least an unexpected conundrum when the smaller white ball swung around the larger red one and their strings intertwined, twisting more tightly together in a way that was clearly going to take a while for gravity to disentangle. The audience laughed. John Zorn, seated in a corner, let out an enormous cackle. Marclay looked on, quizzically and with apparent appreciation for what had ensued.
It suited the mix of austerity and impishness in Calder’s work, so elegant and astute but also playful and pleasing in a pre-analytic way. (The same could be said of Marclay’s own work, like his 24-hour film collage The Clock from 2010 and his 1985 album release Record Without a Cover, to name just a couple examples.) After evincing a sort of stone-faced grin, Marclay untwisted the strings by hand and started again. From then on, with gentle prods to get their weight swinging, the two balls slowly encircled the space, knocking into the objects in a manner that made for a freeform percussion piece divined by chance operations. As the performance carried on, Marclay walked to a back room out of sight several times and returned with more objects: a beer can (delicious Dos Equis), plastic cassette cases, a metal colander, a mixing bowl, and so on.
For her part, Lee, who can make a cello sound like a lot of other things (musical and otherwise), walked around the room slowly and responded. Some of her playing tended toward tensile flurries of notes; some toward long, smeary tones; some more still toward low, guttural growls that sounded like a very large and bewildered animal alone on an open plain.
The audience sat rapt, tittering in parts (lots of smiles defined the faces of those so curious to see and hear what would happen next) and otherwise deeply engaged in the thrill of a discrete performance that could not—or certainly in all likelihood would not—happen the same way ever again.