GONE are the days when record collectors wept over a scuff on a 45, a scratch on that old 78, or a gouge on one's favorite 33-and-a-third r.p.m. Today any vinyl disc can be recycled into something even more priceless: art. And the more battered the album, the better the art. Christian Marclay, whose ``record art'' is currently playing here at the Hirshhorn Museum through Sept. 30, is proof that records are a form of artistic expression even when they're not played or have no grooves. There are lots of surprises in the 40 ``sculptures'' and two-dimensional works on display.
As you walk into ``Directions - Christian Marclay,'' you immediately encounter a disc collage called ``Recycled Records,'' made from vinyl record fragments. It includes Elvis Presley's sultry face, a blue-lipped woman with royal-blue blusher and matching eyes, colorful cartoon mice in a meadow, a fragment of a starry banner, and various unidentifiable parts.
It's a bit of a crowd-stopper at the Hirshhorn, particularly for the kids who troupe toward music in any form - even as soundless sculpture.
But the centerpiece of the Marclay show is not the silent music of his disc art, but a 13-foot installation called ``Tape Fall.'' At the center of the room, a pine ladder reaches to the ceiling, where a tape recorder unspools long, rust-colored snakes of audio tape, which slither down to top a huge triangular pile of used tapes on the floor. Permeating the space is the sound of running water - perhaps a leaky tub or a stream gurgling in the background of this ``Tape Fall.''
MR. MARCLAY, a performance artist as well as sculptor, uses all sorts of objects associated with music for his assemblages: album covers, hi-fi speakers, audio tape, even stereo knobs as objets d'art.
One of the most dramatic pieces is a series of six wood-backed speakers with black fabric fronts, which are stacked vertically and then horizontally to form a massive crucifix on one wall in a work called ``Cross.'' In a corner of the exhibit is a series of battered '50s suitcases, with vinyl records imbedded in their hard plastic sides like musical portholes.
In this music-less show formed from the implements of music, the organizer, assistant curator Amada Cruz, writes in the accompanying brochure: ``Marclay's sculptures, which are recent creations, are his attempts `to comment on sound without sound being heard.'''
So you are faced at the entrance with a silent white veil made of the small translucent records known as ``flexidiscs,'' which hang from floor to ceiling, in a work called ``Sound Sheet.'' In ``Five Cubes,'' it looks as though a giant trash compactor has smashed dozens of promo records together into cubes with just the colorful bits of labels showing. In ``Roundabout,'' Marclay has formed a rhythmic-looking mirror by arranging record halves in an undulating frame.
But not all is silence. For a Zurich exhibition of his work, Marclay did a tribute to Fred Astaire called ``Footsteps,'' in which the 1,500 visitors who came during a six-week period walked over 3,500 copies of blue and yellow records taped to the gallery floor. The dirt and scratches and footstep sounds were later mixed with sound tracks of tap dancing, and the combined result was ``Footsteps'' - art which can be played, though not at this show, where it can only be seen.
Marclay himself can be seen and heard at the Hirshhorn Sept. 26, when he will tap dance through a talk on his artistic double life as part of the museum's monthly ``Focus'' series.
Born in California and raised in Switzerland by a Swiss father and American mother, he became involved in the avant-garde and punk-rock scenes while studying sculpture in the United States. He formed two performance groups - the Bachelors Even and Mon Ton Son - in 1980, before making his first music sculpture by recycling music and record technology. His magnum opus, ``Tape Fall,'' was first installed in 1989 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Amada Cruz notes that ``after the exhibition closed, he collected the tapes in bottles and sold them as `Bottled Water, 1990.'''