Video Killed the Video Star
VIDEO ART HAS NEVER SEEMED TO KNOW QUITE WHAT TO DO WITH ITSELF. THIRTY YEARS AFTER ITS BEGINNINGS, IT'S STILL NOT COMFORTABLE ON THE MARKET OR IN THE MUSEUMS. DOES THAT MAKE IT A DEAD END OR A REVOLUTION?To identify video art as a single genre is like calling physics, chemistry and biology "science" or grouping all 13 to 19 year olds together because they are "teenagers." The video art classification covers a wide variety of very different artistic expressions.
Perhaps video art is so difficult to categorize because it hasn't been around for long. In 1965, Sony began marketing consumer video equipment. It was almost immediately picked up by the Korean artist Nam June Paik, and other artists followed soon after, to see what they could do with this new technology. Different styles and techniques developed from the start.
Artists who choose to work with video or film have a different and, some might say, more challenging, task than those who work with more traditional, stationary mediums. Unlike paintings, photos or sculptures, which allow the viewer to look at them for as long as he pleases, video and film pieces last for a set duration and must captivate the viewer for all of it. Different artists confront this problem in different ways, some by conveying emotion or sensuality, some by creating drama or suspense, but all video art must address it.
Even though many varieties of and ideas about video art exist, the moving image has only a narrow foothold in most art museums. So, when I stepped inside the Institute of Contemporary Art, I was interested and excited to see the museum filled to the brim with moving images, including Dutch artist Marijke van Warmerdam's 7 Thoughts, a series of projected film loops, and an international sampling of video art from the 1999 Venice Biennale.
Marijke van Warmerdam
Repetition exists in life wherever one looks. Routines, habits, patterns, tendencies are found throughout nature and society, but repetition is generally thought of negatively, as something that dulls what might otherwise illuminate.
Van Warmerdam has established herself as a master of repetition. Yet instead of documenting existing patterns of the visual world, she creates repetition from things that don't repeat, using film loops to transform isolated events into patterns of great expression and beauty.
In "Skytypers," a mesmerizing loop about a minute long, the camera follows five planes flying parallel against a background of varying shades of blue sky. Although the planes are speeding through the air, the scene is essentially motionless, except for the shifting background of clouds and the slowly fading smoke trailing the planes. The film is so smoothly put together that the repetition can barely be noticed and the progression seems to continue forever.
Van Warmerdam also uses film loops to create a sense of rhythm. "Empty House" is a series of brief shots which provide something like a tour of a house. Even though you cannot tell where the camera is taking you from one shot to the next, each is held for exactly the same amount of time, which creates a very distinct rhythm. The combined discontinuity and precision, repeated infinitely through the loop, provides an interesting and unexpected contrast.
Video via Venice: Highlights from the Biennale
This exhibit includes works from four different artists, ranging from a 40-second video loop to a 20-minute short film, and even to performance art and kinetic sculpture captured on video. Although the moving image connects the pieces, each artist's work is conceptually and visually quite distinct.
The experience and expression of emotions is the focus of Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila's videos on display at the ICA. Although these pieces are the most movie-ish of the exhibition, they are still very experimental, with unconventionally spaced plots, overdubbed voices and multiple screens.
"Consolation Service" is a 23-minute video, with two different projections shown simultaneously on adjacent screens. This interesting effect accentuates a theme of voyeurism that begins with the narrator looking out of her window, describing her neighbors, and continues when several people in a waiting room crowd around a private therapy session. But the truly amazing scene in this piece shows several friends walking across an ice-covered pond, discussing in detail what happens to the human body when it falls in freezing water. Suddenly the ice cracks, everyone falls through and both cameras cut underwater to the murky darkness. I was immediately hit with a strong feeling of suffocation, a very powerful effect considering my seat inside on dry land. Great skill must be used to produce this kind of sensation for the viewer.
"Stereoscope," an animated film by the South African artist William Kentridge, is a beautifully flowing piece that builds momentum as it progresses. A peaceful black-and-white beginning is altered when a blue line emerges and jump-starts everything in the film. Electricity, telephone lines, population growth and pages and pages of numbers all emerge upon contact with the blue line, until at the end everything blows up in a series of explosions. What's the message here? Is this piece about a fear of technology, a call for awareness or perhaps the explosive nature of South African apartheid? Whatever it is, the viewer pays attention because the film itself moves swiftly and captivates.
Roman Signer, a Swiss artist who utilizes simple physical properties to uncover beauty in the natural world, reminds me of my 7th grade science teacher. But when one sees his "experiments," ten of which are exhibited here on video, which he uses to document these process-based pieces, the allure of his work is quickly apparent. In one, a large inflated ball is placed into a flowing stream, where it is stopped by a wall with a hole smaller than the ball can fit through. Several seconds pass until the water pressure builds up and the ball pops through the hole. Signer uses this simple natural event to create suspense, a sensation usually associated with much more complicated situations.
Finally, in another event captured on video for documentation and display, Chinese performance artist Zhang Huan lies face-down and naked on a block of ice for about 10 minutes as his body heat confronts the resistance of the intense cold. An impressive feat, and one we can only see because it has been preserved on tape.
In a sense, this use of video to preserve and distribute artistic works is what binds the exhibit together. Making one's work visible is extremely important, especially for artists like Signer and Zhang whose ephemeral pieces cannot easily be displayed. Even with van Warmerdam, Ahtila and Kentridge, it is video and film technology that allows their work to be distributed and appreciated by a wide audience. Although the category of "video art" is incredibly broad and includes so many contrasting artistic styles, the video medium has enabled a whole generation of artists to be artists.
7 Thoughts: Maijke van Warmerdam and Video via Venice: Hightlights from the Biennale: Eija-Liisa Ahtila, William Kentridge, Roman Signer and Zhang Huan are showing at the ICA through July 2. The ICA is very near the Hynes/ICA stop on the Green Line. Hours are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m., Thursday, 12 to 9 p.m. and Friday, 12 to 7 p.m. Admission is $4 with your student ID and free on Thursdays after 5 p.m.