Saturday, November 7, 2009

Spend A Little Time With Me: Video Art Roundup

What is the State of Video Art? The field known as video art covers such a range of activites and formal strategies that it's impossible to make a totalizing statement about what video art is or isn't. The same goes with painting, sculpture, and every other art medium, but folks seem to have a harder time getting a handle on video, which can be difficult. For one thing, it's durational. Most galleries are lifeless vacuums and not places you want to spend a lot of time in, no matter how good the show. What was the last time you spent looking at a painting for more than five minutes? Five actual uninterrupted minutes--try it. Sure, a good painting will warrant scrutiny after a cursory viewing, but there is a subtle resentment at having to spend time with a work to fully appreciate it.

Another problem is that you will never forget viewing a bad video piece, and there are a lot of these. Video art, unlike painting or photography, seems to carry with it the burden of responsibility for all of its less successful or tolerable endeavors. I think this is also tied in to the time problem. People really hate having their time wasted, and a lot of artists have trouble knowing when to wrap it up. Like my video professor Jim Pomeroy was fond of saying, if it's bad, it's also long and bad.

Yet another problem is that people don't go to art exhibitions to watch TV. Every moment of our lives tends to be in confrontation with some type of screen or another. There's nothing more dispiriting than a little monitor on a pedestal in the corner with a pair of sanitarily questionable headphones dangling in front of it like a listening station at Virgin Megastore. Interactive video pieces are the worst. I'm here to look at art, not be put to work.

But the main issue is the confusion about what the field of video art actually constitutes. Video tends to absorb a lot of concerns. Sometimes it's a performance piece; sometimes it's a staticky media critique. Some artists make 'moving image paintings', some are basically making movies. It can be animation (hand drawn or digital), or live action, or swiped off the web. The production values vary wildly. It can be scripted or improvisatory; sensational or abject. Not all of it is for everybody--including, I might add, for some of the artists that make it. But that's the point...its diversity is its strength, although it could also be argued that dilution only weakens, and frankly, some foundational ideas about video art are better off left to, er...historical appreciation.

With all these considerations in mind, I offer these reactions to several video shows that I encountered in my latest gallery go-rounds; I think I got dosed with a fairly representative sampling of these differing practices that also happened to span the divides of generation, race, and gender in their particular ways.

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My first stop was at Andrea Rosen to check out Matthew Ritchie's new exhibition, "Line Shot", because, simply put, I adore Matthew Ritchie. His big bang theory of artmaking could almost be dismissed as daffy solipsism were he not constantly expanding the parameters of his practice (much like the artwork itself, which seems to seethe with desire to burst out of its frame) to include collaborations with scientists, game designers, musicians, and architects. Like Matthew Barney, he presents an idiosyncratic, mythologized 'total work' on a big scale; he's Frank Stella as science-fiction graffiti artist. I like being drawn into his quasi-mystical creationism, and I've longed to see what he was up to with his video work.

Well, I got my wish. A centerpiece of the exhibition is an hour long, dual-channel video, projected large and framed within an amorphous wall drawing of Ritchie's signature silly-string-theory arabesques.There's no point in trying to describe the detailed symbolism and intricate cosmologies at work in this piece -- as anyone who's tried to decode one of his paintings can attest -- but suffice to say that it was like standing in front of a baroque Stargate portal watching the queasy, turbulent birth cycle of a nascent cosmos. Really, it's not unlike the famous time-tunnel sequence at the end of 2001, but not as acid-damaged. Ritchie is attempting to invent his own reality, based on math and myth, and then model it, the artistic equivalent of those worrisome particle physicists who are making miniature black holes in order to study the creation of the universe. It's seductive and lunatic, and thoroughly mesmerizing. The video appears to be a combination of 3D animation and heavy visual-f/x processing which gives the work an uncanny formal semblance to his drawing, painting, and sculptural work; in fact, one would imagine that these investigations began in the form of digital simulation from which his paintings and prints were derived, rather than the other way around. To allow yourself to really get lost in his universe is to understand what right-wing creationists (or anyone who hasn't visited a planetarium) will never get: that science is but one way to embrace and be consumed by the sublime, which is to say the spiritual.

Also of note, this work is available in various scales: an as-is installation in an edition of one; as a custom-designed installation piece to suit the interests of a collector; or simply as a play-as-you-will series of three 22-minute chapters on DVD (edition of 5 or so). Ritchie is, according to the gallerist, "very flexible."

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Next up was Rashaad Newsome's exhibition "Standards" at Ramis Barquet (incidentally, also the site of last summer's smart, tight and fun video group show 'East Coast Video', cheekily named after the Getty's sprawling but cogent 'West Coast Video' exhibition). Newsome purports to deconstruct signs of power and luxury in hip-hop culture, mainly with a series of bling-and-teeth-grill photo collages shaped to resemble traditional heraldry. Also on view was a decorative mirror-chromed palace gate and an ornately bejewelled wall piece, also heraldic in composition. Upon entering the space, one immediately hears the overwrought strains of Carl Orff's O Fortuna from that composer's masterpiece Carmina Burana. This impossibly cliched musical work, the score of countless commercials and operatic thrillers, is actually the soundtrack to Newsome's two-part video The Conductor. Dozens of snippets from hip-hop music videos are expertly edited to the movements in the Burana, presenting a frenetic dervish of blinged-out, champagne-in-hand gesticulations that appear to 'conduct' the cantata.

Newsome is making an obvious, but fun to look at, statement with this work; I'm not convinced that the "ghetto coat-of-arms" visuals are presenting much more than we already know about the largely uninterrogated appropriation of Western symbols of wealth and privilege in black hiphop culture. The cantata is eventually underscored with a nice downtempo beat, the ultimate result resembling a rap-star remix track set to a YouTube fan video mashup. So visually, there it is: an entertaining, silly taxonomy of bling.

A couple of things, though, about the cunning choice of music. As Alex Ross notes in The Rest Is Noise, Orff (along with fellow German Richard Strauss) was compliant with the Nazis, and his best work, the Carmina Burana, was a favorite among the Reich's leaders, who played it across the country in open-air arenas to rouse the emotions of the populace. Orff's role as a flat-out Nazi sympathizer has been largely repudiated, and his music "commits no sin by being and remaining popular." This is the real story of Newsome's video, with its narrative of Western oppression and its connection to racism (and racism's connection to poverty), to say nothing of hiphop culture's compliance with symbols of opulent, conspicuous power. Throw into the mix the art world's obsession with status, luxury good acquisition, and 'racial issue' art memes, and this initially silly video starts to percolate. Are Newsome's rap stars (and Newsome himself), like Orff, making the best of a bad situation, born into an oppressive cultural context, or are they just in league with the devil to get a better seat at the table in Hell?

One more quick note about the music. Newsome inadvertantly completes Orff's project of Theatrum Mundi, now largely unrealized, which required the symbiosis of music, speech, stage visuals, and kinesthetic action. Here's a quote from Wikipedia: "Orff's artistic formula limited the music in that every musical moment was to be connected with an action on stage..Carmina Burana was intended [to involve] dance, choreography, and visual design." Could there be a better description of a hiphop video?

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So, gesticulating my way over to Robert Miller Gallery, I was eager to see guest curator Tim Goossen's show of contemporary Belgian art, "Avec Le Temps". Tim is well known as the young and dandyish junior curator at PS1 and is the co-organizer of 'Between Spaces', a tight little exhibition of object-based conceptual sculpture on view now.

What I was expecting was mostly what I got: a mix of visual and sculptural work that was at turns smart, visually witty, and occasionally impenetrable. Some of the works were lucid, others were aided and abetted by the press release description. What I was not expecting to find was two of the most compelling, guileless and cunningly sophisticated documentation-style video works that I've seen all year.

The first, by Edith Dekyndt (born, according to the press release, in 1960) is an intimately scaled point-and-shoot documentation of a performance. Or, should I say, of a sculpture-in-process. Or, even more accurately, of a sculptor's prerequisite obsession and fascination with the material properties of an object. In the video, the camera frames two hands which repeatedly knead, roll, caress, and tear some type of chalky magnetic playdough. The tearings reveal spiky tendrils and flaky folds of matter which are repeatedly tortured into various organic configurations. Part of the marvel of the video is in the mystery of this erotic, reactive ball of material, but the real art here is in the process. Documented as a time-based material investigation, this video is much more interesting than choosing to predictably display the resulting objects, frozen in their torments, divorcing us from the experience of tactile pleasure and curiosity. However, it must be said that this piece, projected small and low on a wall, was part of an installation with other visual and audio components that seemed less legible.

The next piece, a wall-size video projection of a 16mm film by Els Opsomer (b. 1968), I walked in on, walked out on, then returned to. Boy, I'm glad I did. The video is simply a quotidian shot of a busy street: traffic, bustling pedestrians, construction vehicles, a scrolling advertisment marquis overlooking an open-air plaza. OK. The theme of this show, after all, open-endedly interprets the notion of 'Time', so here is a locked-down moment of time and space, a little bit of light-weight neo-structuralism. However, this particular moment of time and space is taking place in Instanbul during an annual two-minute commemorative silence, during which the entire country ceases all activity. A couple minutes in, crescendoing waves of blaring air-raid sirens freeze every person solemnly in place. It doesn't happen all at once, and some citizens are slow on the uptake, but this flash-mob performative ritual was like something out of an episode of the Twilight Zone. It chilled me to my core.

Lens flares of sunlight flitted from behind a tree. The marquis ominously continued to scroll. Eventually, the sirens wound down, the population unstuck themselves, and carried on. So moved was I by the weird poetry of this piece, it is only now that I think of the implications. Nostalgia is a terrible weapon often wielded as an instrument of nationalistic mass control.

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My final stop was a large solo exhibition by the big daddy himself, Bill Viola, whose exhibition "Bodies of Light" fill the temporary chambers of James Cohan's cavernous space. It's hard to argue with the primacy of Viola as high exalted grand poobah of the Video Arts (even though I've generally preferred Gary Hill's more literate and structural work over his). Give it up for the fact that he's one of the few artists who has chosen to work exclusively in the medium, instead of as a facet for a broader installation practice. His work deals with basic premises, simplistic symbolism, and devotional formalism. His work is the connective tissue between the Classical and the Modern; he references Greek and Romantic sculptural mise-en-scene, Eastern/Western spiritualism, and uses slow-motion as a dramatic technique the way Benny Hill used fast-motion for comedy. He makes work for operas and churches. He doesn't care if you think it's pedantic, overwrought, or mawkish. I think that takes some balls, and I like his work.

Several pieces from the last decade are on display here, but the centerpieces deal with Viola's familiar stagings of human figures interacting with water. In this body of work, Transfigurations, an invisible curtain wall of water obscures and reveals the passage of an trans-generational array of men and woman--some nude, others clothed-- through its veil. The scenes are lit such that the spray of water appears to emit from the contours of the evanescing figures, accentuating Viola's obsession with the body's deliquescence. There are several of these videos, presented in different sizes and numbered configurations: they are what they are. The actors act, and the performances can be a little histrionic. Birth, consciousness, passing on, etc. It's Plato's Cave for the spiritual-motivational poster art crowd.

However, the introduction of a subtle technical effect, which took me a while to catch on to, charged the drama of these works considerably and finally completed the project, formally speaking. Simply put, the models were shot with two cameras: one a grainy, grimy, black and white night vision camera, the other a high-definition color camera, the look of which is now familiar in his later, mannered work. The figures emerge from the darkness, monochromatic, blurry video frames skipping. As they push through the waterfall, they transition seamlessly to the high-def color imagery, like Dorothy stepping out to behold her technicolor Oz. As the characters back away into the void, the process is reversed. That's it. It's a jarring gag, and a sublime one, especially in the piece installed at the front of the gallery.

If I sound snarky, or divided, as I describe this work, it's a defense mechanism. Viola makes it safe for us to like the Romantic stuff that's just on the iffy side of cliche. What I really long for is a re-staging of his magnificent The Crossing diptych that served as the opening to his retrospective over a decade ago. There are other works in this show, mostly good, mostly small and quiet, especially Bodies Of Light, which looks like it sounds and is kind of tantric and charmingly low-tech in a late-60s video performance kind of way. The other centerpiece installation is Pneuma (1994), a full-room multi-projector environment of deliberately obfuscated, digitally granulated home movies, essentially. This work is pursuant to Viola's interest in liminal vision and totalizing sensations, like being underwater, but it feels out of place alongside the crispness of his later work. Also, I generally like the exhibition design of shows at this gallery, and Cohan is a true believer in video art, which is why it was so frustrating that the cramped quarters of these ersatz viewing catacombs left so little breathing room for the work (as well as the audience). Some curatorial editing would have gone a long way to a show that is otherwise worth spending some time with.

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