Saturday, December 19, 2009

video art in detroit (2009)

this entry is long overdue, as for the past few months some excellent video art has been on display in the city. I will focus on two institutions that are well-known, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), because their exhibitions on video will come down very soon, so maybe you'll have a chance to go take a look. I visited each show at least three times before today.

from July 03, 2009 through January 03, 2010 the DIA has hosted the exhibition titled Action<>Reaction: Video Installations, which features the works of Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman and Ana Mendieta. if one enters the show from its intended beginning, the first thing shown is a video projection of green text onto a wall that contextualizes video art ("video art may be..."). This institution has been heavily criticized by its didactic labeling of art work ("dumbing it down") since their reopening, and to some extent its use of media technology ("gimmicky") but I have always been a fan of both choices, as I believe that the museum needs to speak to many different people, in different levels - experts should not expect wall signage to cater to their needs, they can come up with their own jargon on their own, I am sure. the use of projections also animates and invites young viewers into a familiar territory, so that the museum space might remind them more of home or a movie theater, than a grandmother's house where nothing can be touched.

so I began this particular exhibition and actually thought it was good to use the medium to explain its own diversity in approach (as performative space, sculpture, nonlinear narrative, etc), though I would have liked it better if they had chosen a TV monitor rather than a projection (as I feel that it still connects the medium more to cinema than to television/mass media). as an aside, I thought it was great (funny actually, as in peculiar) to have the director of the DIA speak in a vertical flat panel at the Avedon, exhibition, and wander if the irony was intentional (director as newscaster/personality in an exhibition on models and/as celebrities)... on my third and last visit there, with my video art students, I was asked which artist made that video (the media label), and that for me was telling, as I began to see how, for the untrained eye, that such projection might be confused with a new type of art work, rather than a curatorial statement. it was then that I also began to reconsider my enjoyment of the use of other media throughout the museum, because we do live in times that the word art is used to liberally, and that it might be confusing to some to distinguish which is what...

moving into the first room (there are three of them, off the Rivera Court, plus the initial explicative projection) is a piece by the collaborative duo Fischli&Weiss called The Way Things Go. this was by far the most popular piece in this exhibition; on all three times all seats were taken, with many folks standing around and watching it (it is a fairly long piece). This cleaver exploration might be best described as the documentation of a dynamic sculptural installation, which reminds me very much of a Road Runner carton for some reason. without giving it too much away (as I hope you make it there to see it), I hope you notice the illusions of uninterrupted time via the use of natural elements (fire, water, etc). my one wish in regards to this piece was that it was not presented again in a darkened room, with seating, because then I feel it gets experienced as cinema (specially given its entertaining qualities), and not as video (which I find to be a wonderfully complex and paradoxical medium).

the next room featured a piece by Bill Viola, which I had not seen before. my prior engagement with his works were much larger in scale, but here Nine Attempts to Achieve Immortality was shown in a small vertical flat panel television (again in a darkened room, why?). this part of the exhibition was always quite empty, myself usually being the only person there waiting for something to happens, which it does, and it is sort of wonderful given the beautiful quality of their sound (it is rightly loud at times)... but I feel that the installation loses a lot of the spiritual connections Viola usually refer or imply in his work, because the architectural surroundings are mostly obscured by the darkness (look up his installation at the Church of San Gallo in Venice, quite impressive)... the DIA has similarly impressive rooms, it would have been great to see his work in a different wing.

the last room contained monitors (finally!), two containing the performances of Ana Mendieta, and one by Bruce Nauman, both of which I had seen in person before in different institutions. I saw Mendieta's work (I believe all fall under the Earth Body explorations in situ) in the Bienal de Sao Paulo in 2006, where they were shown as projections, side by side, which I found most appropriate, because of the larger scale that creates and the relationship to the viewer's body in relation to her own body (implied or otherwise) in the works. I also suspect that her work is actually mostly done in film, and not video, and I believe that these different mediums have very distinct discourses (have not found much evidence online that she shot actual video, but all is possible, Iowa was a very progressive place in the late 70s for performance).

Bouncing in the Corner by Nauman is actually one of my favorite pieces of his (him being one of my favorite artists). it is from the same time period as Stamping in the Studio, which I show to my students every year. like many early practitioners of video art, Nauman was interested then in the performative possibilities as relating to time (they lasted the length of the tape) and space (the confinings of an empty space, as well as the dimensions of the video frame), as well as the shifting of one's perception of what is right/correct (he often placed the camera any way other than straight on). I saw Bouncing... at the Hamburg Bahnhof Museum in Berlin back in 2008, amidst a beautiful collection of Joseph Beuys' works (another one of my favorites), Mike Kelly and Rodney Graham (borderline groupie here!)... Nauman's work was situated on an adjacent building, and I first heard his work, before seeing it. I heard this extremely loud thud that actually shoot my insides, much like being in a loud night club with a strong bass, and its repetitive quality reminded me of my own heart beat. when I turned around the corner I saw the simplicity of his work and I was extremely moved by it, which was unexpected (as I always read more wit than raw emotion in his poetics). I wish the installation at the DIA had the same effect on me, but the volume was quite low, and combined with another artist's work in a small and crowded room, it lost its power to me immensely.

I still enjoy my memory very much, which brings a point of something that may or may not have been evident in this post so far: the importance of the apparatus when interacting with video art. along with considering its visual and auditory hybrid condition, it is always paramount to consider how the apparatus of video is used/concealed/conceived as part of the work, as video is inherently dependent on it for its decoding, unlike cinema (one can actually see the cinematic image upon the inspection of the film strip, which video's magnetic ribbon must be mediated/interpreted by a machinery). this ephemeral/spiritual connection to the medium of video is conceptually aligned very well with this exhibition, albeit some minor modifications would have further enhanced it.

the exhibition seen by the main entrance (and to the right) at MOCAD by Alexander Gutke fully and beautifully embraces the incorporation of the apparatus as a conceptual device, a necessity really, for the understanding of the work. the use of film, video, and slide projectors make a commentary on our expectations of the media these machines translate and enlarge, with a focus on the loop as a conceptual and narrative trope. as much as these media (photography, film, and video) aim to capture or encapsulate time for posterity, here time is revolving over and over again, simultaneously exploding any precious notion of a time past and enclosing or interrupting (imploding?) our own present time, by hypnotizing us with unwinding repetition. make sure that you grab at the door the greatly concise description of the works and map for the exhibitions, as they will provide you with wonderful "a-ha!" moments (not in the 80s band way)....

moving towards the back room via the concert area are the works by Ann Lislegaard titled 2062, a first of many references to the future. The entrance to that hall is enclosed by a sound-proofed tube, with snippets of futuristic sounds and quotations from past visions of times to come (aka hollywood sci-fi). there are five distinct areas here, three video projection installations (one single-channel with audio, one two-channel sans audio, and one triptych with sound), as well as two audio bed stations and one room installation. depending on one's knowledge of the genre (one piece was inspired by a book I read ages ago, the left hand of darkness, another in my view a direct reference to the monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey) more clues may be needed for the enjoyment of these works, though for me their strength rely on their commentary of architecture as space (which funny enough puns with space and imagination in science fiction). what differs from Gutke's work here is the shear beauty of images and sound here (his work is dryer and more formal, hers is very seductive), which created a very inviting environment, albeit filled with mystery (much like going "where no one has gone before")...

both these exhibitions will be available until December 27, so please hurry up and see them... the new addition to the MOCAD space is the current installation/performance of Christian Marclay's The Sound of Christmas, which was initially performed on December 12, with different installments until December 20. I actually went to his live performance, which included local DJs as well, and found it both boring and relaxing, which I think are fine responses to any given work of art, but I am not sure if that was the intended reaction. this performance consists of five or so turntables which are used back to back by different DJs, from a collection of christmas vinyl records that are also on display at the space, as both video representations, and as stacks one can peruse (that was enjoyable). the live event also included a video feed that was projected behind the stage, which for me was a miss. this ten year project reminded me of events I went to, well, ten year or more ago, when video jockeying was beginning to becoming very prominent in the east coast. and like any musical event, one must have a more active participation (such as dancing or talking or moving through space, etc)... maybe unintentionally people sat down to hear the spontaneous compositions (which at times were very interesting, but mostly sounded like experimental sound from the 80s and 90s at best), but I wish we all had not had the chairs and the tables around, because watching someone spin two records with a dramamine-absent projection got old very quickly (Marclay's set, to be fair, was exquisite - my favorite, and all DJs seemed to have a lot of fun, which was wonderful to watch, but maybe for 5 minutes, not a couple hours).

what was most wonderful to me at Marclay's adventure at MOCAD was the inclusion of local talent. MOCAD has tremendously energized the local art community, and its new director, Luis Crocker, has raised the bar with the exhibitions and events he has brought to town since his arrival (keep at it, and truly thanks!). but a hope a clue is taken by the more overt inception of local artists there. I am not the first person who has wondered why this museum does not include a small space for Detroit artists to show their work, much like the 12x12 space at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. a similar venture here would create a more interesting dynamics between larger institutions, galleries, and a great pool of local talent. is there a suggestion box somewhere?

last but not least, on Sunday December 20 at 3:00 pm CCS Professor Michael Stone-Richards will be giving a walking talk at MOCAD on the aforementioned video art exhibitions. this is yet another not to miss event. hope to see you there!

click here to visit the DIA site

click here to visit MOCAD site

click here to visit the Hamburg Bahnhof site

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