Meet Marcus Fischer, the Portland Sound Artist Invited to the 2019 Whitney Biennial
by Robert Ham
Published in Portland Mercury
Marcus Fischer’s sound installation art is as impressive to look at as it is to hear. His piece “Canopy/Harmonic Chorus,” which was on display at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) last year as part of The Snake exhibition, ran tape loops from floor to ceiling and through small plastic spindles suspended in the air. The syrupy and intoxicating looped sounds—an overlapping array of guitar harmonics—broadcasting from small round speakers (also hanging) lent the installation a resemblance to a beautifully balanced Alexander Calder mobile.
“Canopy/Harmonic Chorus” was Fischer’s latest step away from recording and performing music, and toward creating site-specific work. It was the piece that likely tipped the scales for Fischer, and got him invited to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the prestigious modern art exhibition that happens every two years at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.
“I still don’t quite know how they found me,” Fischer says, over beers near his home in Northeast Portland. “I almost deleted the email they sent, letting me know that one of the curators was going to be here in two days [and wanted to meet with me]. I didn’t have time to get stressed out about it, even though I’ve never had a studio visit from a curator before. From there it was a series of emails and Skype calls. No one addressed the elephant in the room until they offered me the spot [in the Biennial]. I’m still in shock in a lot of ways.”
The nod from the Whitney was a well-earned imprimatur for Fischer. Since moving to the Northwest in the late ’90s, Fischer has become one of the region’s most celebrated experimental artists. His albums are beautiful and enveloping, evoking widescreen images of the natural world and revealing deeply personal expressions. On his 2017 record Loss, Fischer uses degrading tape loops, watery guitar chords, and crackly samples to wrestle with the passing of his father and, as his label 12k Records put it, “the permanence of absence.”
Loss was completed during Fischer’s stay at the Rauschenberg Residency, a Florida property once used by celebrated painter Robert Rauschenberg. It was there that Fischer also finished one of the two sound art pieces that will be in the Whitney Biennial. As the 2017 inauguration loomed, Fischer recorded other artists at the residency reciting their chief concerns regarding the then-forthcoming Trump administration.
“I collected all these voices,” Fischer recalls, “and wound up making edits so that, if everybody said the same thing, like ‘the environment’ or ‘sexism,’ I would stack the voices. It was like a chorus.”
The finished piece was a three-minute tape loop that ran from the floor to the ceiling. Fischer played it nonstop in the residency’s main studio space on Inauguration Day in 2017, so people could wander through and meditate on these issues. The piece will also play during the entire five-month run of the Biennial.
The Whitney also commissioned Fischer to create a sound piece for the museum’s stairwell, which runs from the sub-basement to the building’s fifth floor. The work, called “Ascent/Dissent,” will feature 10 channels of audio, broadcast from 29 different speakers attached to the stairwell. The sound changes as the audience walks from the bottom of the stairs to the top, the tones bleeding together along the way.
“Depending on which elevation you’re at, there are different kinds of tonalities,” Fischer says. “The sounds below are subterranean and more earthy. As you get higher, it becomes more ethereal. It’s a little bit about the path of life, whether you enter and rise up, or you go into the ground.”
While recognizing that the Whitney selection will likely open doors for him and his work, Fischer seems surprisingly reticent to leave his day job as a photographer and photo stylist to pursue art full-time.
“I feel completely fine working in order to live and have my creative endeavors separated from it,” he says. “I kind of fear what would happen if I were to turn art into something that I would have to depend on.”
Robert Ham is an arts and culture writer and a regular contributor to the Mercury.