Moving On I: Vision

John Haber
in New York City

Trash Mirror, Rubens, and the Moving Image

As I walked into the American Museum of the Moving Image, nothing was moving—at least not an image. Someone took my money and coat, of course. However, the only work of art in sight, a rather dingy mural, was all dressed up with no place go.

So is the moving image one more illusion, one more casualty of Postmodernism? Why not stop the film projector and get a closer look? New work, a long tradition, and a psychologically informed critic try just that.

Mirroring suspicion

Daniel Rozin's Trash Mirror (American Museum of the Moving Image, 2002)I know: motion as an illusion—the question sounds pompous and silly. I can live without one more version of Zeno's paradox. If this Web site has a premise, it is that art never runs out of things to see through, including its attempt to see through things.

And yet new media may serve as a direct challenge to painting, sculpture, and installation alike, for they refuse to sit still. One takes it for granted. It is what they do. It is what one sees. In this and an accompanying essay, I want to look at two attempts to ground that experience in an appeal to nature.

This part asks if one can explain moving images by the nature of vision. The second part then asks if one must turn instead to the tactile—the performer in front of the video camera, the user of interactive art. I shall find that each explanation comes, gratifyingly, with illusions of its own.

The museum lobby makes a good place to start, for it encompasses seeing and moving. The patchwork of cigarette packs and other trash, mounted on a metal frame like old bedsprings, offers a full-dress exhibition of Pop Art cut down to size. Think of Robert Rauschenberg and the Rauschenberg combine called Bed, but without the tradition of the visual. One can hardly contemplate it for its form or its web of associations. One wants to touch it, without fear of disturbing a fragile fabric of color. It may have quivered as I entered, but I hardly noticed until I got almost close enough to touch.

As I drew closer, it slowly shook with the dead sound of a soda machine on overdrive. Each scrap tilts in response to one's motion, changing the pattern of light and dark. Daniel Rozin calls it Trash Mirror, but one's reflection looks surprisingly bright and way too bulky, a sinister, white shadow. The camera one hardly noticed blows up chance gestures, as intrusively as public surveillance. The logos on the trash reassert the scale of advertising, and the lobby inscribes it all on the scale of public art.

Rozin has made pixilated mirrors before, but on a computer screen. Here, I felt attentive less to the image or the software than to the relationships among image, bodies, and their motion. His dingy surface had the reality of the industrial streets outside and the materials of illusion.

Back to basics

Art has always a hard time with the most ordinary fact of life, change and its physical experience. Perhaps it hurts too much to confront. Perhaps one never knows whether an escape from the past would bring timelessness or remembrance. Or perhaps the convention just arose like any other, in this case with Renaissance striving for individual perception. Leonardo calls vision superior to other senses, as unmediated by the air and reducible to mathematical methods. The picture plane of late Modernism enshrines his assumptions in two dimensions.

The primacy of vision still has plenty of defenders. They include both those who appeal to unmediated experience and those who distrust it violently. Maybe most people do both, as when YouTube censors video art by Amy Greenfield.

Susan Sontag has made a career of rescuing suffering from cliché by probing the status of vision and representation. Once, in On Photography, she slammed photography's proliferation of images as deadening. More recently, in Regarding the Pain of Others, she dismisses all that talk of a world reduced to spectacle. Only a French theorist out of touch with life would believe it—except, one might think, someone who has seen wars as televised sporting events with America as the home team. She appears to have reversed herself. Yet each time she appeals to vision and physical experience, before the damage of culture and representation, as a tidy package with a guarantee of truth.

Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio of the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, designers of the future Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the High Line, take a skeptical view, with what the Whitney calls their "aberrant architectures" or indeed what David Carrier might call museum skepticism. In "Scanning," a retrospective, fifty suitcases fill a room in long, sterile rows. Each opens to expose a mirrored surface, with a generic post card and impenetrable ground plans for a tourist attraction in one of the fifty states. A sheer fabric reproduces text in a cold, contemporary typeface. The text, from advertising to terribly proper social critics, portrays travel as an unsuccessful escape from the rootlessness of home. Other works incorporate an eerie array of cameras and projections to enunciate a politics of architecture.

The text offers a stern lecture on one's powerlessness in a disembodied world of images. The objects offer an equally stern lecture on the texts. In the wall labels, curators tell one what to think of that. The installation itself then comments brutally on the museum, and you get the picture, literally, whether you want to or not.

Each video, software, and even painting add to the temptation and confusion of shifting images. If one cannot quite believe in one's own culture, one can always reinstate it in a broader, more fully human nature. If one cannot believe in nature, can always reinstate it in culture. So why not turn the same eye on moving pictures? Consider one last attempt to restore motion to humanity's visual nature. I mean a provocative recent essay by Michael Betancourt, a Florida artist and critic, on "a new kinetic art."

Time series

Betancourt appeals plainly to the psychology of vision. Most people, he argues, consider motion pictures an illusion, a poor substitute for the continuity of human vision. In reality, however, we process the visual data of real motion much the same as frames of a movie. We fit a sequence of perceived images into the most natural causal reality.

Peter Paul Rubens's Helene Fourment in a Fur Coat (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1630)No sequence of photographs alone can evoke movement. Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies exist in space but not in time. However, painting can do better, Betancourt believes, for it can encompass change in a single perceptual space. John Berger, the English critic, describes a portrait of his wife by Peter Paul Rubens, the fur slipping from her shoulder, her waist displaced toward the artist further than any one pose can explain. The disruptions of art after Modernism, Betancourt continues, have still greater potential. A triptych by Francis Bacon hints at works and experiences still to come.

Betancourt is on to something. Movies depend no more on illusion and inconsistency than anything else—if also no less. I make my own narratives in my head, and they work. I wonder, however, about the appeal to a psychological bedrock—not even for a vision of the future as far from naive realism as Bacon's and Betancourt's.

Just how can a painting fit the paradigm of processing perceptions in time? Any part of a painting is equally accessible at all times. Indeed, at first glance, it would seem that Muybridge's enforcing a sequence is more likely to trigger a visual response. Certainly it did trigger a crucial response—his own, in inventing the zootrope, a prototype of the motion pictures, before Thomas Edison. The problem intensifies as one comes to Modernism. Bacon's sequence—in three panels and within a frame, across space and shattered past easy comprehension—gets messy all too fast.

Rubens makes things harder still. He hides the disjunction of the flesh beneath the fur. A viewer cannot consciously compare the two poses in space, Betancourt reasons, so one must find another explanation, in time. But how? What makes this causal reality, indeed any causal reality, the most natural? What would that mean for modern painting and interactive art, with its trickery right on the surface?

An answer may lie in visual cues far beyond a woman's pelvis. Rubens suggests motion with an entire painting, and he roots it in felt love between the artist and his model. Some art historians in fact interpret the subject not as portraiture, but as Venus. They might equally point to the erotic charge of Leonardo's kneeling Leda, who succumbs to a god in the form of a swan. Rubens knew the drawing, with Leda's exaggerated turn and the swan's twisting neck in fluid, mutual response. His finished portrait is indeed moving, but in more ways than one.

Privileged moments

Rubens describes a privileged moment. He paints Helene Fourment in the act of undressing—or dressing, for one can never be sure. Her fur seems ready to slip off, the woman just as ready to save it so as to recover her dignity, her individuality, and her sex. Fur implies luxury, elegance, tactility, the surface of a living thing, and the painter's own gift to a loved one. Rubens knows well the draperies of the chaste subjects of mythology, and he leaves them behind for something fully in his world.

None of this hinges on gestalt psychology. None of it applies to the passive, objectively dictated perception of a movie audience—the conventions that video artists who lean on movies, such as Jon Routson and Christian Jankowski, so careful take apart. Rather, these varied cues construct a narrative, and the painter, subject, and viewer enter into it together. Even the shift in the woman's hips evokes the tactile and emotional as much as the temporal and perceptual. It opens her to the painter's reach. It responds to his affection.

No wonder Berger calls nakedness a process rather than a state. As he puts it, the portrait admits subjectivity. Not that he knows for certain the artist's intention. Betancourt considers that caution foolish, given Rubens's familiarity with the rules of anatomy that he so blatantly violates. However, Berger, who in the same book criticizes the "originality of the avant-garde," cares a great deal about the artist's or viewer's subjective state. Only he sees that these, too, hinge on a construction.

Berger calls his book Ways of Seeing, in the plural. He refuses to recoup art for a simpler reality. He refuses to hide humanity and, conversely, common-sense ideology under the guise of a new objectivity—whether of painting or science. Betancourt relies most on Rudolf Arnheim, the gestalt psychologist. All too often, Arnheim pigeonholes art into a textbook in just that way.

Artists have always told stories in time, while they wrestle with the eternal. Vernacular art used to describe the life of Christ much like a cartoon strip today. Allegory and iconography kept viewers aware of the moral backdrop to passing existence. Altarpieces made the conjunction of moments and meanings explicit, but so can a single panel. When Vermeer paints A Woman Weighing Pearls, she gives meaning to the Last Judgment behind her as much as it gives meaning to her delicate balance. In The Last Supper for Leonardo da Vinci, breaking bread becomes a momentary explosion and a ritual for all humankind.

Painting's timelessness is itself a fiction. Nor did it take a museum's harsh, white walls and trans-historic sweep to invent it or to cast it aside. Painters know that any scene takes time to scan with the eye. Museum visitors feel the encounter with art in space and time, as they jockey for space in crowded exhibitions like those in a photography by Thomas Struth. Sculpture and architecture make the viewer's work part of the plan. Art's privileged moments require people, bodies, places, conventions, and illusions, and they do not divide up into tidy compartments.

Where the bodies are buried

Modern and postmodern art, then, did not invent the construction of time. However, they force one to deal with subjectivity. They refuse to smooth out the sweep of time and space. They will not always offer a tidy Hollywood epic. Rather, art presses on each viewer the disjunctions that Rubens himself leaves largely to the unconscious.

Betancourt makes me think of an old interpretation of Cubism, as conjoined moments in time. Berger himself, among many others, has rightly argued for a more complex interpretation. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque include many different kinds of perceptions, sensations, and associations, from textures to text. Art constructs a reality that threatens to land on one's lap, and it becomes about that construction. Oh, that School of Paris.

Betancourt never credits the age-old interpretation of modern art. He never mentions a famous example—what Marcel Duchamp made of Cubism, a decade later, in Nude Descending a Staircase or Sad Young Man on a Train. (As Betancourt has very considerately pointed out to me, he treats Duchamp's paradoxes of vision elsewhere, with thoughtful attention to the "inconsistency inherent" in seeing.) One could do well to recover his example, however, as a counter-argument. Duchamp alludes to film and to stop-action photography, as Cubism does not. He uses disjunction to depict not just motion, but also the perception of motion. He uses motion to depict the perception of disjunction.

Betancourt ends without fully articulating the kind of art—painting or new media—yet to come. Then again, no one can. Video and interactive art need not necessarily feel different from a movie. One speaks of Flash movies. Unlike the first movies, however, they come after modern art, rather than creating a world along with it.

They can presuppose the very idea of interactivity. They can use the assumptions of film and visual psychology not just constructively, but deconstructively as well. Shows at P.S. 1 and the Museum of the Moving Image, as described in the second part of this essay, do all that. When it comes to moving pictures, they know where the bodies are buried.

Rozin's lobby piece technically does not contribute to the show of interactive art within the museum, but it fits right in. One can hardly overlook the dazzle of the latest software, the choices one makes in using it, or the cameras surrounding it all. Neither belief nor skepticism has the ability to disentangle them all.

BACK to John's arts home page

Daniel Rozin's mural at the American Museum of the Moving Image has no firm closing date. "Scanning: The Aberrant Architectures of Diller + Scofidio" ran through June 1, 2003, at The Whitney Museum of American Art. published Michael Betancourt's "Motion Perception in Movies and Painting: Towards a New Kinetic Art," October 23, 2002. His "Precision Optics / Optical Illusions" appeared in the Duchamp e-journal tout-fait, April 2003.


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