Posts Tagged ‘video art’
[This post is the first part of a two-part review.]
Trying to review an exhibition of video art is pretty insane.
It took me three separate visits to the SAM – which worked out to a total of five and a half hours, not including a curator’s tour – just to finish seeing all the stuff in their latest show, Video, an Art, a History 1965-2010: a Selection from the Centre Pompidou and Singapore Art Museum Collections.
Towards the end, the galleristas were beginning to look at me funny.
Anyways. First, a personal caveat: I’m pretty ambivalent about video as an art form. I’m not saying it can’t be art, but so much of what I see these days isn’t all that different from traditional narrative cinema, or are simply documentary components of larger multi-media projects. Then there are the ones which capture performative works for posterity. This may all perhaps be a bit of a moot point, seeing as how certain art historians and academic departments – not to mention practicing artists – are increasingly situating their work in the space between art and film, under the broad aegis of the visual culture paradigm, but take, say, Chinese artist and filmmaker Liu Wei’s A Day to Remember (below), for instance, which was included in the show. Liu walked around Tiananmen Sq. and the Beijing University campus on June 4th, 2005, asking random strangers on the street if they knew what day it was, and those recorded responses became A Day to Remember. Most of the replies were unsurprising, given the general self-censorship which ordinary Chinese citizens still practice as a means of negotiating socio-political minefields, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the piece, sitting through most of its short runtime of thirteen or so minutes there in the darkened gallery, I couldn’t for the life of me explain to myself why this should be in a museum – as opposed to being aired on TV, say. Because if I didn’t know better, I’d have said it was a clip from some documentary program. Yes, museums regularly play host to film screenings, and, yes, video art and film are perfectly legit subjects of academic inquiry by art historians, but museum programming and the shifting inclinations of academia still don’t explain why some televisual works should be screened on their own in museum galleries as art, when they they might make just as much sense – if not more – when viewed in a theatre or on an educational or arts channel. Which is not to say that video art, especially in it’s early, experimental days, did not attempt to insinuate itself into the realm of mass media, but these days it seems almost as if the mass media has staged some sneaky counter-colonization, asserting its own aesthetics as art …
A Day to Remember 忘卻的一天, Liu Wei (2005). Caution: Unreadable subs, and a minute-long commercial in front.
Perhaps the advent of twentieth-century strategies like abstraction and conceptualism opened a whole stinky can of worms as far as aesthetics are concerned. British artist Ceal Floyer’s Construction, which appeared in the recent Singapore Biennale, pretty much consisted of an empty room with four white walls … and a soundtrack of construction noises that periodically played overhead. When I described it to a friend, all I got was a rolling of the eyeballs. Ok, so it isn’t everyone’s idea of art. If any vaguely aesthetic experience may fall under that label, then why not televisual works like Liu Wei’s as well ? But here’s where a large part of my discomfort stems from, I think: something like Floyer’s piece can only be dubbed (conceptual) art, and very little else. In the manner of John Cage’s pioneering 4’33″, a three-act symphony of utter silence, works based on an aesthetics of absence which explicitly challenge the limits of the experiential categories they operate within – like composed music and ambient urban soundscapes, for instance, or even <gasp> Art – are founded on an interrogation of those boundaries, and thus, while perhaps unfamiliar on a formal basis, nonetheless are works calling themselves art and attempting to do what postwar art does best (at least since the prescriptions that Clement Greenberg laid out in Modernist Painting*): challenging it’s own physical and discursive limits. Liu’s video piece, on the other hand, could be contextualized as art – mostly from being included in an art exhibition – but when something looks like an elephant and behaves like an elephant, housing it in, oh, the aviary, doesn’t exactly make it a cockatoo, does it ? Why call A Day to Remember video art, when it doesn’t a. stage a critical intervention of some sort, b. challenge the parameters of its particular medium, c. function within a larger artistic program, or d. present an aesthetic experience, as opposed to serving a straightforwardly documentary purpose ?
To put it another way, is anything televisual or even filmic a priori admissible as video art these days ?
* To wit: “The essence of modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”
Having said that though, I have to admit, I loved the show. (The five and a half hours speak for themselves. Plus the extra hour and ten bucks for the guided tour.) As SAM exhibitions go, Video, an Art is massive, ambitious and – in a local climate of continuing conservatism in the sphere of the arts, just look at the dismal response to this year’s Arts Fest. – real ballsy. It was co-curated by the Pompidou’s Christine van Assche (big name, by the way) and the SAM’s Patricia Levasseur de la Motte. Hats off to these girls. I may not agree with every single inclusion, but in terms of it’s depth, daring and breadth of vision, the show is a major step forward for the local visual arts scene – we can’t always be looking at Nanyang school stuff or contemporary reformulations of traditional Chinese ink painting, no offence to partisans of those genres. Quibbles aside, Video, an Art makes a definite attempt to be conceptually coherent: it is divvied into six different categories, starting with “Utopia and Critique of Television”, which looks at the emergence of video art in the ’60s, both as a critique of the totalitarian aspects of network TV and as a new aesthetic medium in its own right. Next is “Identity Issues”, a rather amorphous grabbag of various pieces, some of which seem to me to be pretty tangential to the theme; “From Videotape to Interactive Installation” includes participatory video works, and “Landscape Dreams” – probably my least favourite of the lot, art-wise – feature pieces which reimagine the role of the environment, both natural and built, in our lives. Over at 8Q, “Memory: Between Myth and Reality” offers a take on the role of the media in our personal and collective mental lives, and, finally, “Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Narratives” is pretty self-explanatory.
One of the highlights for me was finally getting to see Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory (above), a multimedia installation which excavates the sedimented layers of personal narrative behind the notorious 1972 holdup of a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn by John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile. A simple bankjacking soon turned into a day-long media circus; it was later immortalized in the critically acclaimed Sidney Lumet film, Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino as the Wojtowicz character and the enormously talented but short-lived John Cazale as Naturile. I’ve always been curious about the events behind the film. The bare bones of the story are well-known: Wojtowicz was a man with an ex-wife, two kids and a male lover desperate for a sex change, and it was to bankroll the latter’s surgery that he decided that sultry summer day on his outrageous course of action. The holdup soon became a standoff, and in the ensuing melee the teenaged Naturile was shot and killed, and Wojtowicz landed himself a twenty-year jail term, of which he eventually served ten. He also sold his story – the result was Lumet’s 1975 film – and a portion of the proceeds was used to transform his erstwhile squeeze, Ernest Aron, into Liz Eden.
That’s it though. I never knew much else about either Wojtowicz’s or Eden’s personal histories, and Huyghe’s work goes a long way towards putting together a narrative that positions itself somewhere between real-life occurrence and Hollywood flick, hence The Third Memory. Its centerpiece is a reenactment of the crime with Wojtowicz as director, and juxtaposed against this is actual footage from the film – or at least that’s what I’ve read about it. I sat in the gallery for almost ten minutes, and didn’t see anything of Dog Day Afternoon; mostly it seemed to be a staging by the now rotund, geriatric Wojtowicz of what is presumably his hazy recollections of that fateful day, a performative hybrid of personal reminiscence inextricably fused with cinematic imaginary, and while the gusto he put into it was certainly admirable (cancer was to claim his life several years after this), what little I saw didn’t quite measure up to the work’s reputation. Pity … The rest of the installation was great though. In an adjoining room were reproductions of contemporary newspaper coverage and a Life magazine article just chock-a-block full of details about the crime and its protagonists, as well as a recording of an episode from The Jeanne Parr Show* on which Liz Eden appeared. Wojtowicz was also interviewed from jail, and the breakdown of the relationship between him and Eden gets rolled out and dissected in pretty stark detail.
How I miss Jerry Springer … You’d think I’m kidding, but I’m not.
*A bit of trivia: Parr (above) is a former CBS reporter – who apparently had her own talk show in the ‘70s – and, more pertinently, the mother of actor Chris Noth, a.k.a. Mr. Big from Sex and the City. Is it just me, or does she resemble a younger version of her son in drag ?
[To be continued.]