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“Seeing Songs”

Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Through Feb 21, 2010

Music pervades our lives, but is it more than just an accessory? How do you know that it is anything more than a presence in your pocket, barrier to unwanted noise, or to make up for the expanse of empty wall space? The “Seeing Songs” exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts delves into the role of music as an integral part of our lives.

On the surface there are just the pictures. Richard Avedon’s colorful lithographs of the Beatles grace the front of the exhibition. Herb Hitts, responsible for immortalizing stars such as Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, and David Bowie on gelatin silver photographs, gets his own wall. And going a little deeper, Joseph Grigeley’s Songs Without Words, a collection of prints derived from musicians as photographed by the New York Times, explores the dual commerciality and mysteriousness of music.

The highlight of the exhibition, however, must be Candace Greitz’s Queen (Portrait of Madonna). From a wall come thirty screens arranged into a grid, collectively singing the entire 73 minutes of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. There are no actual images of Madonna. Instead, thirty different faces of thirty different people fill up thirty different screens. These sing their favorite songs in unison, with a resulting sound reminiscent of a particularly boisterous night of group karaoke (without the backup music).

At first glance it seems as if the photo booth has gone crazy, or the convicts preparing to take their mug shots have decided, in a fit of desperation, to let the better half of their spontaneity flow. These are actually just everyday, normal people and watching them is like watching ourselves in the mirror during those crazy private dance parties in the outskirts of our rooms. Come on, even Taylor Swift does it.

As the song continues, the thirty people sing and move with the music, some awkwardly and self-consciously, some only too aware of the chance to call attention to themselves, and others completely oblivious of the captive audience that the camera brings: there’s the girl on the side whose soulful, yet controlled, rendition of “Like a Virgin” fails to bring more than the occasional head movement into the mix; the guy whose smoldering eyes suggest mild insanity, rather than his probably intended look; the portrait with vigorous head nodding to accompany a rather pained expression and very curly hair. The man with the crazy eyes brandishes a strip of white mesh, twisting it about in front of him as a prop for his one-man show.

They have moved on to the slower “Crazy For You” by now, and people start to close their eyes and sway along with the music. The song comes to an end, but most keep dancing silently and others take sips from a water bottle. And through all of this, for a few wavering seconds, there remains the sound of a lone voice softly hanging onto the last note. Then all is silent. And the next song in the album begins. Life moves on.