Out of the Light

John Haber
in New York City

Into the Light: The Projected Image

Video Art's Inner and Outer Space

Pretty much everyone traces video art to Nam June Paik. Maybe, but for those of us who missed the birth announcement, exactly when?

Mark that date

It sounds simple, but I could suggest two different dates, years apart. In fact, competing surveys of early video, in Virginia and New York, look to them as the birth of two quite distinct traditions. Fortunately, the two turn out more treacherously intertwined than I had ever imagined. So which best defines video art? Tune in and see. Rist's Sip the Ocean (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1996)

In 1963, Name June Paik filled a German gallery with altered television sets set at all angles, as disorienting as bad reception. Or no, must one point to quite another date entirely? Two years later, Paik bought an early camcorder and captured the Pope's visit to New York. It ushered in an era of slow-paced, seemingly amateurish video narratives. (A related review looks at alternative histories of the origins of video art, in Paik's collaborators and rivals.)

So which was it? Who owns the history of video art—between epistemology and the movies, art and science? Like a more eccentric retrospective at the Guggenheim Soho a few years back or the programs at Eyebeam, exhibitions at the Whitney and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts ask exactly that.

The first sees video as bringing Minimalism and performance "Into the Light." It asks one to see a case, cathode-ray tube, projected image, or even oneself as a part of one's surroundings.

The second, "Inner and Outer Space," takes that title to stand not for physical worlds but for consciousness. Starting several years past my second birth date, it offers a history of "single-channel video." In other words, simply watch what is on the set, like a bonus channel without an additional cable fee.

Together, the two exhibitions question the very meaning of images—on TV, in a gallery, or in one's own mind. They make for an entertaining, thought-provoking tug of war. Besides, if I get tired of them both, just change the channel. A related review carries the story to still more accounts of the origins of new media, with a focus on Charlotte Moorman.

Channeling

In Richmond, the Museum of Fine Art definitely has ambitions. A three-part survey extends over nine months, as if to recap the birth of an already historic medium, even before art after social media. A good three dozen artists are showing well over fifty works. (Two separate articles give a fuller description of a key component, video by Pipilotti Rist and Rist in retrospective.)

Its ambitions extend, too, to the intricate design of each part. One gets three of today's hottest numbers—Rist, Shirin Neshat, and Jane and Louise Wilson. Rist has something of the status of a pop star, not inappropriate for a woman who has had her own band. Neshat's Rapture, the focus of Part Two, all but stole a Whitney Biennial, just as such video artists as Eve Sussman and Sue de Beer would steal future ones. Her theme of men and women, violence and repression, under Islam has since taken on fresh relevance. The Wilsons look at an earlier bit of rhetoric about good and evil, the Cold War.

However, the featured work comes at the end of its part, and its display would look quite at home at the Whitney. One enters a darkened room for a large projection, right on the wall. To get there, one must first step back to the 1970s, pick up the headset a dozen times, and watch TV.

Visitors might find it startling that video art has a history, assuming it is art at all. And here lies the museum's most interesting ambition. The more I watched of Part One, the more I appreciated how precisely the older works mirror Rist's motifs and strategies. At worst, they can make the latest wave look stale! In effect, by its thoughtful selections, the museum is describing a tradition, but also helping to define and create one.

Museums love to claim traditions, to justify their own institutional value. For the present to stand at the end of one, however, requires not just a birth, but also some kind of growth in time. And sure enough, the museum points to change. In the past, the curators argue, one has that lone channel and some clumsy editing, and now one has slick installations. If my note of twin births, or the Whitney's whole exhibition, makes sense, however, video was using installations all along. Besides, it takes much more than a room-size projection—or even a split screen—to step outside the box.

Still, the claim leaves room for an intelligent show. The exhibition is right to insist on a certain slickness these days. I do see a trend, not in the direction of installations necessarily, but toward conventions from the movies and MTV. It comes as a deliberate choice for video and computer art, not just gains in editing software and screen resolution. It also makes parallels between Rist and the past all the more interesting. As I dug into the 1970s, I learned that both past and present share a fascination with the body, with consumer culture, and with gender roles—all of them caught up in the nature of the camera's eye.

Spit and polish

In Sip the Ocean, Rist swims toward an underwater camera. Twenty years before, Hannah Wilke shot herself through another translucent medium, Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass. Her beauty, pose, and elegant man's suit raise the same mix of androgyny and seduction. Swimming leaves Rist in a prone position, of course, just like Vito Acconci. For more than half an hour, he crawls forward. The camera makes his head way too large and his plea for sex all but unbearable.

As Rist swims, objects drift down in oblique reference to feminine roles. Martha Rosler, too, has a field day with the comforts of domesticity. She runs through an alphabet of kitchenware, turning the gestures associated with each one into a very funny act of violence and self-assertion. William Wegman comes home as well, trying to sell deodorant and a "massage chair," only the massage comes from hitting himself with a stick. (Well, okay, I prefer his video efforts to teach his dear departed dog, Man Ray, how to spell.)

Eleanor Antin has a more low-key sense of humor and rebellion. She plays with paper dolls, in fantasies out of soap operas and cheap fiction. Cecelia Condit ends her tale of feminine passivity and male violence by singing about Barbie and Ken. Barbie also sinks to the bottom of Rist's ocean, and Ken would have liked the cute, if nasty flower girl in another recent Rist work.

Rist's portrait of love and culture naturally takes pop music, too, on the soundtrack. Dara Birnbaum contributes an actual music video, commissioned for Jimi Hendrix's "Fire." She also adopts the televised image of Wonder Woman, only as a heroine who has no end of trouble changing identities. Nam June Paik himself opens the exhibition with what amounts to an extended résumé—a crazed montage of music and art-world legends from his past.

Sip the Ocean spans a corner, serving as a crack and the symmetry of the surrounding image often suggesting a vagina. The stress on Rist's body and her fixed stare throw the assumption of a male gaze right back at the viewer. Lynda Benglis, too, defines herself by her appearance in a mirror. For Paul McCarthy, the confrontational use of his precious bodily fluids includes spitting on the camera lens, and I felt as if it had landed right on me.

I could go on, but the exegesis would start to sound more Biblical than postmodern. One can see, though, the provocative pleasures of good curating. That alone helps make video's claim to an art form credible. Do the show's ambitions give out too soon, without a word from before the 1970s? Is its idea of installation or single-channel video all too tainted by the polish of mass media? Just step over to the Whitney for the missing pieces.

Inaction painting

If the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has greater ambitions, the Whitney's exhibition holds far more surprises. In Virginia, images dance about, but the medium itself sits still. In New York, images stay put, but nothing else can, especially the viewer.

William Anastase's title, Free Will, sets the theme. As in Minimalism or an installation, one has choices, and stress falls equally on the art object, performer, and viewer. Together, they bear responsibility for what they can only represent or imagine. In the shared space of a museum room, one cannot help noticing what one has never seen before.

Anastase places a lone monitor right on the floor, a camera just behind it, in the corner of an otherwise empty room. The camera points backward, so that the screen shows the same corner that one sees, only without the set. The work of art has emptied the museum of everything, itself included. Yet time and space weigh heavily. So does the unrepresented presence of oneself.

Others look just as obviously at the making of video, as if "action painting" could repeat itself on a tape loop. Mary Lucier reduces a video of Boston or yet another room to a sequence of Polaroid stills. Robert Morris's camera moves among people holding mirrors, so that one cannot separate subject from object. Peter Campus's Aen (yes, rhyming with pain) makes one confront one's own image, upside-down. Gary Hill, as if to act out this first move from performance into video, tapes the process of mounting his set in the gallery wall.

Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman, and Paul Sharits stay as literal and suggestive. Sky TV, Ono's only video, shows a sky with passing clouds. Nauman's close-up of Spinning Spheres approaches abstraction. So does Sharits's Shutter Interface, with a test pattern's vertical bands interrupted by the black of a timed shutter. Call it Inaction Painting. Ono especially slowed me right down.

They all sound deceptively modernist, and indeed they approach new technology with the artistry of a brush, but are they really? Alfred Stieglitz has cloud studies, and the Bauhaus celebrates the machine age as design. Yet Stieglitz's photographs analyze the possible, like John Constable long before, and Bauhaus welcomes the future as part of a reality today. In the enclosed world of the museum, Ono, Nauman, and Sharits create windows into the impossible. That leaves it up to viewers to see the technology, live, in their own space and to reconsider their own awareness and their dreams.

The flip side

The simplicity of these choices gives new meaning to "single-channel video." As in Richmond, it definitely leads open the evolution of a new tradition. Simone Forti's dance in hologram greens, a nude that Robert Whitman projected in an actual shower, with running water, and Keith Sonnier's Channel Mix live from all the networks have acquired the charm of TV shows remembered from childhood. Since those days, too, Gary Hill's installations have grown ever-more complex and dazzling, with multiple monitors that further define and unsettle one's point of view. Nauman's latest experiment in real time, at the Dia Center, "maps" his studio without moving for nearly six hours, like James Nares caught forever in a Manhattan rush hour.

Video as high-tech performance art definitely leaves space for humor, mystery, and sheer terror. Dennis Oppenheim plays his usual class clown, with his hand slapping a wall amplified and projected on all sides, like a deafening tap dance turned on edge. Anthony McCall shoots the drawing of a chalk circle through mist, so that it becomes a solid cone of inner light. Beryl Korot tours Dachau, and Andy Warhol leaves a harrowing record of depression. Lupe, from Warhol's Factory, plans the perfect suicide, down to her final meal and party-girl dress. She and the viewer must confront at agonizing length the physical—and mental—resistance to death.

Still, the simplest videos at the Whitney caught me most by surprise. They might sound lacking in narrative complexity: nothing happens. What you see is what you get. However, they have the power to make one question what one sees.

The medium here has a mixed message. It includes the video's self-creation, its case and display as objects, the entire room, and the experience of its display. Most important, it includes the gaps between these—between the desire expressed in digital form and the brute force of being there.

In the hands of Dan Graham, the camera walks around a person, always facing her, in a literal Helix/Spiral of 360 degrees. Best of all, Michael Snow definitely shows Two Sides to Every Story. A screen in the middle of the room displays a woman spray-painting a flat surface. The two sides amount to front and back views. One has to use one's body and the space of the room to catch them both, and one can see only one at a time.

In each case, everything feels uncannily simple and present—oneself, the bare walls, the moving image. Even the subject has the reality of a study in three dimensions. Only the absence at the center of the room, the represented subject, becomes that much more vivid, too. The spray-painted screen will never stand apart from the projection screen, and no amount of hustling from one side of the room to another will make them identical either. The very word "identity" takes on complexity, just as gender identity does in Richmond.

Into a different light

So who does get to define video? At one level, the two shows offer complementary, very much shared traditions. Their choices overlap considerably. Early pieces from Acconci and Joan Jonas make the Whitney's cut, too. Parts Two and Three in Virginia are to include Graham, Hill, Lucier, and Nauman.

"Into the Light" or "Inner and Outer Space" could work as a title for both. One draws a viewer into the TV's changing light show and imaginings. The other fills all one's surroundings with light and memory. Both, too, show that a good video draws a viewer into the medium. One takes that to mean a challenging image, like the work of a film director. The other has a medium with no boundaries but museum walls. The contrast shows that any curator, like an artist, makes interpretive choices.

The exhibitions describe a single, continuing trajectory. For both critical decades, video was naturally wrapped up in the aims and form of other visual arts. Minimalism and performance were giving way, as fine art grew less at odds with a broader culture. Galleries started drawing crowds with a new expressionism and beyond, and museums became institutions. Commercial TV and art video started to influence each other more and more, and commercial forms changed, too, for the MTV generation.

Sounds pat and comforting, doesn't it? In another sense, however, each makes clear what the other show leaves out. They supplement one another, and a supplement can do more than complete and perfect a picture. As Jacques Derrida argues, it has a dangerous way of disturbing the picture once and for all.

In Virginia, video attempts a serious engagement with gender and commercial pressures. It can make a more Minimalist style look barren and evasive. A love of museum walls can seem no more than a capitulation to museum institutions. At the Whitney, video forces viewers to take off their headsets for a change and get out of their chairs. It can make someone like Rist look as serious a rebel as most aging pop musicians. Conversely, these omissions can provoke new awareness of what the viewer approaching the work of art has repressed.

So which side belongs to a dead Modernism and its institutional past? In the end, the two shows suggest that art always leaves something out. Try bringing video's inner and outer history into a somewhat different light.

Missing persons

Video does come out of Minimalism and performance, as more recently for Mary Simpson, maybe even necessarily so. It has too many rough edges and too few visible traces for older art forms like painting and sculpture—and not only at its most primitive. If it shoots something, that something becomes a performance. Cut!

Minimalism and performance break with Modernism, because even geometric objects enter the space of the viewer. In turn, the viewer participates, changes the work, and is changed. Video art, too, sits outside assumptions about art or commercial culture—and for much the same reasons. One can look at a painting for as long or as short as one likes. At the movies, with their narrative time, looking at one's watch is a bad sign. With a video, time is supposed to elapse all too clearly—an experience that definitely takes some adjustment for museum-goers.

At the same time, the camera's eye supplements Minimalism or performance, by taking a role that neither could conceivably allow. Video's experiments revive some curiously modernist assumptions. Minimalism and performance turn against one's faith in formalism. A viewfinder, screen, and monitor forcibly return to the constraining rectangle. Minimalism and performance merge a viewer with the artistic space. A camera enforces a point of view outside the work, and the monitor makes a two-dimensional disturbance akin to painting.

Minimalism and performance add a presence despite the "death of the author." I mean a physical object, unlike sculpture, that the viewer can touch or trod. I mean the artist as performer from whom one cannot escape. Video puts events at a distance and under cover of distortion. It allows illusion back in, as in those almost Wagnerian dramas from Bill Viola.

So where do the boundaries lie? Video art is famously "interdisciplinary." It crosses art forms ranging from sculpture to the movies, and it asks whether modern art influenced TV. Yet video cannot create a common space. Museums still have ropes around period chairs, and television carries on to awful effect. Instead, it crosses and disturbs spaces, while a new space suddenly exists.

No wonder Modernism and Postmodernism, video art and the museum, or two histories of video get along so well together—and keep getting in each others way. One needs the other, because it adds something one never knew was missing. One needs art's inner and outer spaces to step into and out of the light.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Into the Light" ran through January 27, 2002, at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Part One of "Inner and Outer Spaces" ran through March 17 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, with Part Two set to conclude June 2 and Part Three to end August 18. I refer in passing to Bruce Nauman's Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), at The Dia Center for the Arts through July 27, 2002. A separate article gives a fuller description of videos by Pipilotti Rist.

 

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