Video emerged as an art form in the 1960s, when new technology revolutionized the medium of moving pictures. First seen on tiny television screens in alternative art spaces, today video dominates international surveys of contemporary art. While the early history of video featured a low-tech, do-it-yourself quality, recent works share the high-end production values of Hollywood movies. Contemporary society is dominated by the cinematic—the experience of watching is center stage, and the mass media have turned private lives into public spectacles. Pioneering video artist Bill Viola noted in the 1990s that “not since the Renaissance have artists been able to use a medium that one could say is the dominant communication form of society,” pointing to converging cultural and artistic developments to explain the ubiquity of video in contemporary art.
stop.look.listen: an exhibition of video works features the work of sixteen international artists in a variety of formats. Including room-size video installations as well as monitor pieces, the exhibition is drawn from the Johnson Museum’s collection and augmented by loans from artists and galleries. Not meant as a survey of contemporary video art, the exhibition instead takes a thematic approach with a focus on works that have an especially striking relationship between image and sound, while also addressing issues related to spectatorship and the represented and viewing body.
The artists in the show who use the video installation format—introduced in the late 1980s as a new way to experience the medium—are intensely conscious of the physical presentation and surroundings of their work. By making the gallery environment part of the total viewing experience, the artists invite viewers to literally enter into the work of art, demanding their active engagement. Creating immersive environments that resemble everything from a hospital to a theater, a cave, an aquarium, or a swimming pool, their installations destabilize traditional oppositions between viewers and viewed, emphasizing a more inclusive vision, in which sympathetic viewers become creative participants.
Many of the videos displayed on monitors have a close relationship to expressions of the medium that developed concurrently with performance art in the 1960s and ’70s. Functioning like a mirror, the television screen in these pieces provides a level of intimacy that also allows for viewing experiences on many different sensory levels.
Exploring both medium-specific as well as broader themes, such as the nature of time and memory, the relationship between body and mind, and the distinction between private and public, the artists in stop.look.listen. have created work where meaning resides not in an object but in a relational environment.
This project was realized in part with financial support from the Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam. The exhibition has been funded in part by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Additional support was provided by the Fifth Floor Foundation, the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York, Hermès, and the Cornell Council for the Arts.
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art