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Meet the Beatles' "White Album" in a way you've never experienced it before

Peter Howell

Night Vision

Most rock fans know the Beatles' 1968 self-titled album, aka the "White Album," as a stellar collection of songs cloaked in the plainest of wrappers: an all-white sleeve with the band's name crookedly stamped on it, along with a serial number for the first few million or so copies.

Rutherford Chang embraces the "White Album" much more intimately. The American artist and record collector has amassed more than 3,000 copies of the Fab Four's double LP and he's still going strong. Where others may see just a sea of vanilla cardboard, Chang sees — and hears — a rainbow of possibilities.

He has an installation titled "We Buy White Albums," part of which is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in its new exhibition, I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces. The AGO show, which is well worth a visit, is an eclectic assortment of paintings, photos, films, videos and ephemera that includes works by artists ranging from unknown prehistoric cave painters to the boldface likes of Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Werner Herzog, Annie Pootoogook, David Hockney and William Kurelek. Running April 16 - Aug. 14, the exhibition is dedicated to the proposition that humans have always had an innate need to document their daily lives, no matter how mundane that urge may seem.

Chang's collection might at first seem monotonous and even bizarre — why focus on the Beatles' most minimalist package? — but it proves to be of consuming interest. The AGO installation displays 210 copies of his "White Album" collection. Some are in pristine condition but most have the well-loved look of years of audiophile ardour. There's more going on with these albums than just one colour.

Many of the previous owners of these albums evidently saw the white slate as a canvas to use for their own artistic impulses. One LP is adorned with colourful stickers of the Beatles. Another has bright doodles, letters and numbers. Still another seems to have been misidentified by a confused fan, who scrawled "Magical Mystery Tour" across the front.

And that sea of vanilla? It has a lot of differently coloured waves to it, because every white cardboard sleeve has aged in its own way, depending on how it was used and stored. Every shade of pale under the sun is on display here, from the bright white of a glass onion to the dark beige of Sir Walter Raleigh's tobacco-stained fingertips.

Taking it all in at once is a truly Zen experience. Chang adds a unique sonic element to it, with a recording he's made of 100 unique copies of the "White Album." They've been layered over top of each other, and the slight imperfections introduced and amassed by this method causes the music to drift out of sync in a most peculiar yet pleasing way.

"We Buy White Albums" is a testament to the reality that sameness is all in the eye and ear of the beholder.

@peterhowellfilm #SeeAGO #TheBeatles


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