Time After Time

John Haber
in New York City

Out of Time and Douglas Gordon

"Out of Time" suggests anything but motion. It could mean a world apart, like a sublime vision of eternity. Alternatively, it could mean life so pressed by mundane reality that one can no longer act, not even to save oneself. No doubt either esthetic purity or a heightened realism would supply a fine history of modern art. Yet the Museum of Modern Art's late 2006 selection of contemporary art, demands a restless eye and a patient body. Not surprisingly, it also offers a lesson in contemporary political art.

Does the slow pace of video, then, or a bare installation afford an escape from this world or an invitation to engagement? Happily, another exploration of quiet and slow time shared the museum for a matter of days. The confluence could stand for a lesson in real-time representation and real time pressures on art. Douglas Gordon similarly uses video to assault the senses, but in fearfully slow motion. He also plays at once on the immediacy of experience and on images inherited from the movies. Gordon shies away from politics, except in an arcane reference to the French Revolution, but he and "Out of Time" alike know the puzzle of video art. Andy Warhol's Empire (Museum of Modern Art, 1964)

Babar the video

Video art. No one knows quite where in the museum to put it—in its own dark corner, throughout contemporary art, or nowhere at all. No one can quite sit through all of it. And yet it is everywhere. Call it the proverbial elephant in the living room or, for a short while, at the Museum of Modern Art.

That is where Gordon's elephant lumbers and lies down, on large two-sided screens and on two clunky monitors in corners of the floor. The video work fills a large room, for obvious reasons, much as it did last year at Gagosian—where, naturally enough, Gordon actually brought the animal and created the video. One feels ample space and leisure in which to move, but also as with Jorge Macchi this enormous presence in real time. The dispersal of the event, in staggered playback, somehow amplifies the space, the time, the mass, and one's own restlessness. One may also become dimly aware of two other presences somewhere off-camera, the animal trainer and Gordon himself. I wonder if he shot the elephant in his pajamas.

Video has a long history of giving real time the sensation of slow motion—or slow art. With Andy Warhol facing the Empire State Building or in Warhol Screen Tests, Hollis Frampton a lemon, Michael Snow a field of sheep, Gary Hill day laborers up against a wall, or Marina Abramovic a drawn longbow or raw animal flesh, time weighs heavily on one's hands, perhaps a little like that elephant. Others, like Bill Viola, have also used extreme slow motion to heighten or distort sensation. With 24-Hour Psycho, Gordon made his mark by slowing Hitchcock's horror show down even past the rhythms and duration of Warhol's underground classic, and in 1999 he projected Taxi Driver on two screens, their frames moving in and out of synch. The suspense vanishes, but a physical threat takes on the diurnal rhythms of life.

Video inherits something of film entertainment's bombardment of the senses, with the added immediacy of a camera anyone can wield to document or to create a performance. At the same time, more than any other medium, it seems to exist as pure image, a product of technology and mass culture, a marker of time abstracted from space and mass. Gordon's strength lies in playing with those assumptions. He loves slow, typically altered or disrupted tempos. He loves physical imagery, often linked to taboos like sex and death. Once, at MoMA QNS, he extended a kiss to fourteen minutes. And of course he loves the movies, most often in black and white.

"Timeline," a survey of Gordon's videos, has thirteen works, none of them his site-specific art. In one, two Hollywood epics play out simultaneously on a single screen, the saintly girl against the mother of the devil. Elsewhere, a rather obscure Otto Preminger film—about psychoanalysis, hypnosis, murder, and gaps in remembered time—plays out on two screens, side by side. Displaced by just a single frame, the old images translate elegance and seduction into a stroboscopic effect in real space, enough to induce nausea or, the Modern warns, a seizure. On small monitors, more simple-minded sex scenes play out, in such gestures as a finger moving in and out of a closed fist. All these works run the risk of turning into bad jokes or losing their sense of humor entirely, like conceptual art trying way too hard to get physical.

Who cares whether the Scottish artist got a hand job? Even Psycho can seem curiously unthreatening if one happens to stumble onto the quasi-static tableau at the wrong moment. I have not have sat through either The Song of Bernadette or The Exorcist, and I am not planning on it any time soon. Nonetheless, the constraints of their clichés make their ghostly superposition so perfect that I hardly worry about their pretence to encompass good and evil. Even more, I shall remember the elephant in the living room. Nowhere else does Gordon's video function so well as installation, creating a real space for lingering and a real time for laughter.

No time Toulouse

At "Out of Time," a single glance could encompass Mona Hatoum's parallel traces in the sand, created by the sweep of its circular container, and Frank Stella with his declaration of painting's "working space" as the logical outgrowth of its frame. After Stella's alkyd stripes, one turns to see David Hammons for his eerie riff on the Stars and Stripes, its pan-African colors like a photographic negative of America. From there, the eye might wander toward Alighiero Boetti for a similarly colored Map of the World, in the photographs of Africa and America by Carrie Mae Weems, or Stone Flag by Robin Rhode as a shattered remnant of human labor under apartheid, as photographed elsewhere by David Goldblatt. Does politics here sound as vague and as insistent as Luc Tuymans, in his dim portrait of Condoleezza Rice? Politics blurs and insists once again for Gerhard Richter's photorealism—his ghostly rendition of the Baader-Meinhof gang as pop-culture icons of violence.

From Richter's single day of terror, one can consider black date paintings by On Kawara or Warhol's Empire one evening at dusk. Perhaps Warhol's stasis will carry one to Pipilotti Rist in slow motion. Rist's lead character smashes car windows in the flowing dress and carefree smile of a deodorant ad. Jane and Louise Wilson, too, merge a slow, simmering past violence and present-day emptiness, in their exploration of the East German secret police's abandoned headquarters. They again use several channels, long tracking shots, and abrupt cuts to dismantle an institution of power and longings for its still-buried secrets. Rachel Whiteread also strands one in an empty library, with the surrounding walls cast in white from shelves of paperback books.

If this pattern of loosely unfolding associations sounds familiar, it should. When the Modern last rehung its permanent collection, it set out much the same strategies. Following the scattershot presentation of the museum's reopening, it avoided strict chronology, division by genres and media, or even a theme. Whereas those would represent the museum institution's definitive point of view, "Take Two" presented curating—or museum-going—as akin to a therapy session. Like therapy, too, it saw the recent past as a work in progress. So did the show immediately after, which focused on Jennifer Bartlett and others of the 1970s, back when modernist dogmas were just loosening up without quite recasting themselves as Postmodern.

The Modern's approach may sound like an evasion, and repeating it may sound like a formula. "Out of Time" has something of both, but it also has a point. It lays claim to the museum or, for that matter, Modernism as caretaker equally of the past, in continuity with art since at least Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Impressionist line, and of the immediate future. The Modern includes several new acquisitions, including those of Tuymans, Creed, and Rineke Dijkstra. Does one really need to see such stalwarts as Stella again—and can one still take seriously such things as Martin Creed's empty room or Jeff Koons? Very much so.

I could criticize a museum for playing it safe, even when talking about a permanent collection. Some things indeed bore me to tears. Rist or Kota Ezawa mostly make me laugh, and Creed mostly allows me the smug and decidedly minor pleasure of actually having what so annoyed the London tabloids. Ezawa's The Simpson Verdict adds audio of the O. J. Simpson trial to a certain cartoon style that shall remain nameless. However, Richter, the Wilsons, and Whiteread induce that heightened awareness of absence that comes rarely indeed, even in a museum. I may never see Richter's series in its entirety in one room again.

The choices work best when they place societal issues and events within the viewer's real time and a single gallery's real space. That intersection of the personal and the political brings issue-oriented art most alive, and it serves "Out of Time" better than the rather arbitrary title. It reflects on conventions that allow real time to represent both the currency of events and a transcendent reconstruction of reality. No one deals with the political implications of that paradox better than Whiteread. Perhaps more than ever, she confounds the "positive" space of sculpture and the "negative" space of a cast. The work could stand as well for the negative of her own Holocaust memorial in Germany, a plinth also cast from books, or for the positive of actual shelves waiting for books—and for more informed and aware readers.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Out of Time" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through next April 9, 2007. "Timeline," featuring works of Douglas Gordon, ran through September 4, 2006.

 

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