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Point of View: A Contemporary Anthology of the Moving Image

Video art emerged as an art form less than forty years ago, when the handheld camera and portable videotape recorder brought ease, mobility, and, most importantly, affordability to the art of the moving image. Throughout its short history video art has challenged many of the conventions of the art world, ranging from questions of reproduction to issues surrounding acquisition. First seen on tiny television screens in alternative art spaces, video art has moved to dominate international exhibitions of contemporary art with projections covering entire walls and huge factory-size installations. While the early days of video featured a low-tech, do-it-yourself quality (Vito Acconci’s performance-based works from the 1960s and 70s, on view last semester at the Johnson, are a good example of this early video art), recent works share the high-end production values of Hollywood cinema. In spite of its original potential to question the rarefied status of fine art, video art of recent years has repositioned itself within the white cube of the gallery. According to the New Museum of Contemporary Art, who coproduced Point of View, “the market for video art is no longer distinguishable from that of oil paintings or bronze sculptures, with limited editions by today’s most sought after video artists currently selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The early history of video art is also characterized by alternative ways of distributing artists’ works. Media art centers like Electronic Arts Intermix and Video Data Bank were founded in the 1970s to support artists and to find new ways to disseminate artists’ video works, apart from the conventional gallery system. Acting upon video art’s original promise of broad distribution, these organizations have a long history of making historical as well as contemporary video works accessible to a wide audience. In the late 1980s, however, when equipment to produce and exhibit large-scale installations became more widely available, a younger generation of artists found financial backers within the gallery system, which follows the rules of a free market, where supply and demand determine prices. The suggestion, therefore, that video art could also be produced “within a more open framework,” which is the underlying premise of the Point of View anthology, is quite a subversive proposition, reaching back to video art’s democratic potential.

On the most pragmatic level, the Point of View anthology is based on the premise that instead of following strict rules of scarcity and demand, a digital medium like video art can also be produced for a broader audience, within a more open framework. In this spirit, the eleven artists commissioned to create new works for Point of View made their contributions with the knowledge that the final result would be distributed within an unlimited format. Point of View: An Anthology of the Moving Image functions simultaneously as an archive, a teaching and research tool, and an exhibition inside a box. Each DVD contains the commissioned work, along with an interview between the artist and a well-known critic or curator, a biography, and images of other works. Taken together, the works provide an international, intergenerational overview of the state of video art in 2004. (From the New Museum’s press release)

Point of View was produced by Bick Productions (Ilene Kurtz Kretzschmar and Caroline Bourgeois) and the New Museum of Contemporary Art as the first commercially available anthology of the moving image in contemporary art. It is available through the New Museum store and website. The Point of View anthology was purchased with funds from the Donors to the Contemporary Art Fund.

Andrea Inselmann
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

 

William Kentridge (South African, born 1955), Automatic Writing, 2:38 min.
William Kentridge gained international attention for his animated films Felix in Exile: Geography of Memory (1994), History of the Main Complaint (1996), and Weighing…and Wanting (1997), which explore the history and psychology of South African apartheid. His films derive from charcoal drawings that develop within a process of erasure. In video historian Michael Rush’s words, “Kentridge works in a stream of consciousness that allows impressions and momentary flashes to take form and then yield to new images, without any loss of momentum; indeed, quite the opposite; momentum builds with each frame.” Reminiscent of Surrealism, Kentridge’s film Automatic Writing explores the point where writing and drawing intersect.  

Isaac Julien (British, born 1960), Encore, 4:38 min.
Isaac Julien is Britain’s preeminent black filmmaker as well as an internationally recognized artist, writer, and scholar. He was a founding member of Sankofa Film/Video Collective, set up in the UK in the 1980s to protest British racism and to form a new politics of representation. Sankofa created a new genre that contested the realism of both the British documentary movement and of fiction feature films. Julien’s best-known works are biographical meditations on the lives of influential black authors. Foremost among them is Looking for Langston (1989), widely considered a founding text of New Queer Cinema, which examines the life, politics, and sexuality of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, focusing particularly on the repressed gay subtext in Hughes’s writing. However, more poetic than didactic, Julien’s films are characterized by their dreamlike imagery and sensuality. In recent years, he has moved away from the single screen toward the use of multiple screens. He has stated that this arrangement allows him to explore certain compositional ideas that are impossible with a single screen and counteracts a kind of “conservatism” in how the viewer perceives images on screen. Through its intense engagement of visual pleasure Julien’s work also seeks to expose, deflect, and reconstruct the cinematic gaze, exploring issues related to questions of race, gender, and sexual difference. For Encore, Julien reworked outtakes from his longer three-channel projection piece Paradise/Omeros (2002) that refers to the African Diaspora and the emblematic search for the “new life” in a New World.

Paul McCarthy (American, born 1945), WGG (Wild Gone Girls), 5:20 min.
California-based and active since the late 1960s, Paul McCarthy gained recognition for his intense performance-based video work on taboo subjects such as the body, sexuality, and shamanistic initiation rituals. His work has also explored themes of violence and dysfunction as they relate to sacrosanct notions of family and childhood. To get at the underbelly of American popular culture he often restaged culturally charged myths and icons, such as Heidi and Pinocchio, in the context of family psychodramas, Hollywood genres, and mass media. Incorporating sausages and ground meat, ketchup, mayonnaise, and chocolate syrup, his work distorts and mutates these familiar narratives into disturbing and carnivalesque tableaux. Because of the shocking nature of much of McCarthy’s work, its innovative aspects as well as its historical roots have tended to be overlooked until recently, when several major museum shows took a closer look at his influential body of work. McCarthy’s work has to be seen in relationship to the politically and sexually brazen performances of the Viennese Actionists of the 1950s and 60s as well as the traditions of 1960s Performance art. “But while the work of the Actionists was about the blood,” McCarthy has noted, “my work is really about the ketchup,” indicating the important role Hollywood’s factory of fantasies should play in our understanding of his often graphic performances.

Gary Hill (American, born 1951), Blind Spot, 12:27 min.
Hill is one of the pioneers of video art. He completed his first single-channel video in 1973 and began producing video installations as early as 1974, consistently employing new technologies to expand the vocabulary of his work. One of Hill’s main interests is the conceptual nature of electronic media, particularly its relationship to writing, the voice, and the body. In the short film Blind Spot, excerpted from the larger five-channel installation Accordions from July 2001, the artist examines the threshold of where language begins and ends. Here, gestures and facial expressions act as a surrogate for language. Shot in the Arab neighborhood of Marseilles, the camera singles out one man in a crowd. As the camera zooms in slowly, the imagery is interrupted by increasing segments of black to create an almost still portrait–like photograph. Following the events of 9/11, one cannot help but interpret this encounter in political terms.

Joan Jonas (American, born 1936), Waltz, 6:24 min.
Since the 1960s, Joan Jonas has been a key figure in the field of performance and video art. Trained in art history and sculpture, Jonas’s early works examined space and perceptual phenomena, merging elements of dance, modern theater, the conventions of Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater, and the visual arts. Jonas first began using video in performance in 1972, incorporating a live camera and monitor that functioned as both mirror and masking device. Her investigation of subjectivity and objectivity is articulated through a personal vocabulary of ritualized gesture. Often performing in masks, veils, or costumes—situated outdoors in natural or industrial environments— Jonas uses disguise and masquerade to study the personal and cultural meanings of female gesture and symbols. The layering of mirrors and mirrored images is one of her most powerful metaphorical devices, returning the viewer to that moment of ego formation described by Jacques Lacan as the mirror stage. Her work has always involved a preoccupation with feminist concerns: “There is always a woman in my work, and her role is questioned.” In recent years, Jonas has been developing work which extends the concerns of earlier pieces with a particular emphasis on notions of the visual. Her recent piece Lines in the Sand for Documenta 11 is a subjective meditation on the fate of self and civilization. Utilizing many of the artist’s formal techniques and deeply personal, Waltz incorporates mythology into its narrative alongside spontaneously occurring events, reiterating Jonas’s important position in the development of both early formalist and early feminist video.

Pipilotti Rist (Swiss, born 1962), I Want to See How You See, 4:48 min.
Like so many European girls of her age, Pipilotti Rist was riveted by Astrid Lindgren’s fairytale girl-heroine, Pippi Longstocking; so much so, she created her by now famous first name by combining her pet name with that of Lindgren’s swashbuckling character. Known for saturated colors, sensual imagery, and an unconventional use of space and scale, Rist is fluent in a visual language that embraces aspects of mass media and experimental video, playfully confronting the high/low debate; she compares the video medium to “paintings behind glass that move.” One of her best-known works is the unabashedly feminist two-channel projection piece Ever Is Over All (1997), in which she walks down a typical obsessively clean Zurich street smashing in car windows on one screen juxtaposed with shots of a country garden on the other. Like much of Rist’s work, I Want to See How You See is seductively corporeal, at once tangible and boundless, open to many interpretations. One such interpretive possibility might be related to her physical relationship to her recently born child and her desire to understand how a baby might see and experience the world.

Douglas Gordon (Scottish, born 1966), Over My Shoulder, 13:48 min.
Douglas Gordon is best known for film installations that feature classic films by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. Gordon excerpts and/or alters film sequences, drawing international attention with his 1993 piece 24 Hour Psycho, in which a radically slowed version of Hitchcock’s film is projected on a suspended screen to explore psychological states and memory. In Through the Looking Glass (1999) Gordon projects the famous scene with Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver onto two facing walls, with the viewer caught in the crossfire. In the interview included in Point of View, Gordon states that he has never liked video, but that he has always been interested in cinema, an attitude that he shares with many contemporary artists working with video. Many of Gordon’s works are based on dichotomies—passion and angst, hate and love, seduction and violence, life and death, perception and memory. In Over My Shoulder, Gordon uses hand gestures against a white sheet to communicate a wide variety of emotions, a by now clichéd cinematic trope to cut away from a sexual or violent scene, especially in Hollywood movies from the 1940s and 50s.

Pierre Huyghe (French, born 1962), I Jedi, 5 min.
While artists like Douglas Gordon manipulate actual Hollywood films, Pierre Huyghe re-creates them with his own actors and sets. These reenactments allow Huyghe to explore issues of identity and memory, only present as a subtext in the original movie. His piece Remake (1994–95) is a remake of Hitchcock’s film Rear Window that exposes the structure of the original film through various distancing techniques. Many of his works address the territory between reality and fiction and the construction of narratives. His two-channel projection The Third Memory (1999) takes as its point of departure a bank robbery committed by John Woytowicz in Brooklyn in 1972 that formed the basis for Sidney Lumet’s movie Dog Day Afternoon (1975). For his project, Huyghe tracked down Woytowicz. He reconstructed the set of Lumet’s film and, using amateur actors, asked Woytowicz to direct them following his memory of the crime. The final piece is a combination of scenes from Lumet’s film, rehearsals for the current film, and shots of the film equipment and crew; this creates a third memory, which becomes a probing critique of media spectacle that leads viewers to their own questions about time and memory. Addressing similar issues and paying homage to Steven Spielberg in I Jedi, Huyghe splits the screen in half, creating a mood of suspense, as we wait for something to happen.

Francis Alÿs (Belgian, born 1959), El Gringo, 4:12 min.
Born in Antwerp, Francis Alÿs has lived in Mexico City since 1987. Alÿs develops his artworks, primarily in the form of videos, slide shows, drawings, or paintings, from situations he encounters on walks through the streets of Mexico City. A close observer and occasional manipulator of the quirks of everyday life, Alÿs is mainly interested in the fleeting or transitory aspects of experience, adopting the viewpoint of a passerby who is at once involved and separate. In this respect Alÿs follows in the tradition of the Situationists and the Fluxus artists. Based on the artist’s experience of living in a foreign country, El Gringo presents the discomfort of being an outsider when the camera is confronted by a pack of snarling dogs, while literally destabilizing the cinematic gaze.

Anri Sala (Albanian, born 1974), Time after Time, 5:22 min.
Anri Sala is part of a group of emerging artists from parts of Europe that were once believed to exist outside mainstream contemporary European art. Trained as a painter, Sala has lived in Paris since the mid-1990s, but he grew up in Tirana during the repressive Communist era, witnessing Albania’s difficult path to capitalism. In the past few years his work has received much international attention, including the Young Artist’s Prize of the Venice Biennale in 2001. His photographs and video works are a blend of documentary, narrative, and autobiography, in which he explores the relationship between language and image, speech and action, and elusive historical fact. While his earlier videos, such as Intervista (1998), were about individual experiences that indirectly revealed sociopolitical events, his more recent work causes detachment and intimacy to coincide through a subtle mix of light, shadow, and sound. His richly textured images are laced with pain, disillusion, and loss, closely bound to a painterly tradition.

David Claerbout (Belgian, born 1969), Le Moment, 2:44 min.
David Claerbout can be counted among today’s youngest talents in the field of artistic video production. Originally trained as a painter, Claerbout uses in his installations either overlays of static images and subtly moving video projections or straight video projections. Often using existing film footage and photography, Claerbout refers to himself “as an editor rather than a creator.” Creating works in which the linear progression of time is unraveled, the artist poses questions relating to the reliability of the photographic in a digital age. In Le Moment Claerbout uses cinematic techniques to create a suspenseful journey through a dark forest only to undermine the viewer’s expectations set in motion by exactly those narrative strategies.