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TV and video.

A dedicated collector of contemporary art told me, not long ago, that she had become enthralled by video now, perhaps to the exclusion of everthing else. "The next time you visit, maybe none of this," she said, sweeping her arm demonstratively around to take in the large sculptures and paintings with which I identify her taste, "will be here." And then, leaning toward me confidingly, she added: "I am thinking of having nothing in my home but video." There is a flourishing branch in the visual arts that consists in the modification of tapes and discs, transduced into images on the television monitor through the mediation of the VCR; but the sweep of the collector's arm made it clear that she was not bent on acquiring a library of tapes and discs but a collection of objects on the order of sculptures and installations in which video images are focal. The television set itself can be regarded as a kind of sculpture in this sense--a three-dimensional cube with a flickering face--but in a great many examples of video sculpture the television set has largely disappeared, and the images, liberated from the cube, attach themselves to objects that convey meanings other than those associated with the familiar purveyor of home entertainment. So two models for her future collection came up on the monitor of my mind, though I imagine that both would find space in the collection she intended to form.

The first model was exemplified by an extravagant constellation of television sets I once saw, an entire wall in effect, alongside a swimming pool at the home of a no less dedicated collector in Honolulu. It was a work by the avant-gardist Nam June Paik, who has, more than anyone, made an artistic vocabulary of aggregated and modified television sets, often arranged with reference to a kind of sculptural syntax. The Honolulu work was composed of perhaps a hundred such sets, in different sizes, sitting in a tangle of wires and showing different moving images, some iterated and flickering, sometimes in unison, much in the way in which we have all become familiar with the bank of monitors in the television studio behind Lynn Russell as she leafs through her notes for the next halfhour segment of CNN World News. The curator who was showing me through the collection obligingly switched the work on, and for a time there was a dazzle of color and movement, too much to take in and keep track of, but whose iconography was probably as complicated as that of some heavily carved stupa at Amaravati, showing Buddhist personages and events in the Buddha's life. I wondered if there were not some distant affinity between such oriental profusion and, since Paik is Korean by birth, the sensibility one sees in at least his larger works like Electronic Superhighway. It consists of television sets massed to represent the continental United States, whose form in neon tubing is superimposed across the whole work, which is more than fifty feet long and proportionately high. Video images that emblemized various states--California, Alabama, Texas--played across that segment of the work corresponding geographically to those regions, and the work cleverly situated itself in New York, since it showed, via closed circuit, those in Holly Solomon's gallery viewing themselves viewing it.

In any case, Paik's work in some sense celebrates the physical fact of the TV set. Well before video art was invented as a medium of artistic expression (interestingly enough by Paik himself), Paik was modifying television sets experimentally. His first exhibition, in 1963 at Wuppertal, showed thirteen sets, altered in the same spirit in which John Cage altered pianos, but to make aberrant images rather than deviant sounds. And Paik, who has degrees in aesthetics and in musical composition, in fact also exhibited some "prepared" pianos of his own. The altered television set and the prepared piano perhaps belong to a different aesthetic altogether from that genre of video art based on my second model. There, the emphasis is less on the television set, considered as a mechanism and an article of furniture highly charged with a set of social meanings, and more on the image itself, which makes no reference to the physical circumstances of its projection, and which, in some of the most powerful examples of the art form I know, seeks entirely to transcend the material conditions of television--wires, rasters, casings--in which an artist like Paik revels. So let us distinguish "TV art" from "Video art," to give names to the models I have in mind. TV connotes primarily a form of life--a room in the middle-class household, a frozen dinner--that the television set symbolizes and facilitates, so that in modifying "the tube" one is in a certain sense engaging in a gesture somewhere between social criticism and outright iconoclasm. It could be a comment on commercialization and mass culture, condemnatory or celebratory, as in a work shown at the Venice Biennale this year by the Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss, regarding which a correspondent wrote, "The Swiss pavilion is filled with monitors presenting over eighty hours of mesmerizing images so inordinately ordinary as to be out of place." This leaves "video" to refer to images that owe their provenance to the same technology as television but that make no internal reference to their origins. Video images, when detached from television sets, belong to the world of dream images, which, though caused by brain circuitry, do not refer to it in any obvious way: We dream about sex, success, fear and flight but never, or rarely, about our brains. Video art, by contrast with TV art, is characteristically spiritual and poetic. TV art is often raucous, and fits artistically with performances of a certain sort--at one extreme, perhaps, with the artist smashing the glass tube with an ax, and at the other, with the late lamented Charlotte Moorman (Paik's great collaborator) playing a cello while wearing Paik's "TV Bra for Living Sculpture," a miniature monitor over each breast, showing images that may or may not have something to do with their provocative siting.

My paradigm of video art is a piece I saw in the underground gallery of the American Center in Paris, by the American master Bill Viola, which had a profound impact on me. Admittedly, its unexpectedness played a role in that: I was being taken for a tour through the building, from the top gallery down, and all at once was led into the underground space where I was hit with a burst of spiritual energy that would not have been out of place at the Sainte Chapelle, or one of the catacombs. The American Center was designed by Frank Gehry, and though it is somewhat untypical of his work, inasmuch as it uses expensive and even luxurious materials when Gehry is identified with the most demotic of construction materials--cinder blocks and chain-link fencing--there is an affinity between Gehry's aesthetic and TV art, if only because in contemporary culture TV is what Hegel would designate as the demotic. Viola's work is universally human, but in no sense demotic.

The work is titled Stations, and there would be a wild incongruity in imagining it in the same space with one of Nam June Paik's more typical pieces. It would be like seeing Sarah Bernhardt together with the Keystone Kops, she declaiming Racine while they fling custard pies at one another and fall down in heaps. Or like Ariadne on her island with commedia dell'arte buffoons in the last act of Ariadne auf Naxos, she singing her heart out while they make mocking obscene gestures. Stations consists of five projected panels, three on one wall, as I remember, and two on the opposite side. I estimate the panels to be about nine feet high. The images, which are of human bodies, are reflected in a highly polished black stone slab, like some form of grave marker, placed in front of each of the projected panels--and these slabs are nine feet long by five feet wide. The images can thus be seen twice--once projected and once reflected--and the combination of reflection and projection plays a certain role in Viola's work. They constitute distinct modes of insubstantiality: Like shadows or mental fantasies, in neither of their modes do the images have thickness. So in a way we are free to think of them as souls, if we roughly follow Wittgenstein in saying that the human body is the best image we have of the human soul. They are in black and white, which gives them a kind of ectoplasmic impalpability, but at the same time they are images of the human body, sexed and naked, and bearing the form and feeling of flesh. In my memory, one of the females was pregnant. The figures are upside down, submerged up to their necks in water and surrounded by bubbles. But we do not see their heads. We see only the bodies, with undulating limbs, and bellies, breasts and genitalia. And we hear the water burbling and gurgling as they move. Sometimes one of the panels grows dark. There is a time, between cycles, when they are all dark, which means that there is nothing but the walls and the slabs, so that the underground gallery has the form of a crypt. Then, all at once, there is a rush of noise, of the kind a body plunging into water makes, and one of the figures is vehemently back, its limbs waving like underwater fronds. Then, one by one, with a similar rush, the figure is joined by another and another, until the full array of five tread water around the spectator, and the noise of moving water, as if a fountain were listened to from beneath the surface, fills the space. And then one by one they leave, returning the space to the status of a crypt, and after an interval the cycle begins again. It is a very powerful experience.

Naturally, we all know that something is being done with computers and switches to create this art, but this is like the knowledge we have about the chemistry of paint when we look at a masterpiece. The interpretation of the work has no room for such knowledge, which forms no part of the intended experience of naked and inverted bodies, submerged in water, and headless, which relate through meaning to the polished slabs but not to the wiring and electrical energy that make the work physically possible: Stations addresses us not as nerds but as needers of the kind of spiritual assurance, at the margins of religious disclosure, that is conveyed through the swimming movements of the immersed figures. Naked, headless and inverted: This description could be satisfied by beings who had undergone dreadful martyrdoms--but these figures do not look as if they have been martyred. There is no visual inference that they have been decapitated, or humiliated by stripping, or hung upside down like Saint Peter or Benito Mussolini and his mistress after they were killed. Nor does the fact that they are shown upside down seem arbitrary, as in the signature paintings of Georg Baselitz (on view until September 17 at the Guggenheim Museum). Baselitz has sought to block the inevitable effort to vest upside-downness with symbolic meaning, by saying that he paints upside down in order to underscore the autonomy of painting, so that, to invert a famous theorem of Spinoza, the order and connection of marks on his surfaces need not be the order and connection of things in the world.

Viola is not, so far as I can tell, concerned with the autonomy of video. His interests are through and through symbolic, so that the upside-downness, nakedness and headlessness (unless taking away the head conduces to an ultimate nakedness) are to be grasped as metaphors. The viewer doubtless does grasp them that way without necessarily knowing what they are metaphors of. But water is a powerful symbol of rebirth, as the ritual of baptism demonstrates, and one is certain that in some way the figures are undergoing a transformation into a state of purification and renewal. So there is a quality of promise and hope, whatever one's actual beliefs on such matters, and it is difficult to imagine that anything like this could be achieved in another medium. My daughter and I walked in silence to the Bercy metro stop, our silence a sign that we had both been touched by something of great power and beauty--not quite what I had anticipated in entering the sous-sol of Frank Gehry's sly and allusive building.

It has since struck me that no other medium has gone from such inauspicious beginnings to this degree of artistic greatness in so short a time: Video is about thirty years old; it began in 1965 when Sony first shipped protable video recorders to America and Nam June Paik rushed uptown to buy one with the same artistic urgency that, in the forties, brought downtown painters to Brentano's to get the first copies of Cahiers d'Art to arrive from Paris. There was a traffic jam that day, caused by Pope Paul VI, and Paik climbed out of his stalled cab to film the passing motorcade. The tape was shown that very night at Paik's exhibition at the Cafe a Go Go, "amid a flurry of proclamations," David Ross (now director of the Whitney Museum) wrote, "including the now-classic line: 'As collage technique replaced oil paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas.'" I don't think even photography traversed such an extraordinary trajectory: Stations is monumental, with the scale and intensity of a great Last Judgment. (It is perhaps impossible to imagine Paik as monumental, however high he stacks his sets.)

Viola is the United States representative this year at the Venice Biennale, where he installed five new works in the United States Pavilion. The choice was a recognition of his stature as an artist, and of video as a mature rather than a marginal medium. I have mixed feelings about not having been able to see Viola's work there. I am not certain that work that aspires to monumentality and, to use an eighteenth-century term rarely applicable to the art of our time, sublimity is seen at its best among displays of several pieces. My experience in Paris would, I am certain, have been seriously diluted had Stations been part of an exhibition in which it was just one of the works on view. In fact, I have come to have serious reservations about the exhibition as an appropriate format for experiencing art other than that which defines itself in terms of being seen along a gallery wall, work after work, like portraits or comfortably sized landscapes. For example, I suspect that the work of Bruce Nauman, distressing when aggregated noisily and invasively, as in the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition, might have been found powerful and perhaps even convincing if taken in one installation at a time. I think the widely resented works that composed the Whitney Biennial of 1993 were just not meant to be experienced all together and at once, since each work was intent upon addressing the viewer along different and not necessarily compatible moral planes. And this is perhaps always true of work that demands a different relationship with us than as "viewer"--when it is meant to dislocate, or transform, or even convert those who come within the circle of its power.

One of Viola's major works is on exhibit, along with works by seven other video artists, in the show "Video Spaces: Eight Installations," at the Museum of Modern Art until September 12. I did make the trip to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, when Slowly Turning Narrative had its first venue, and in fact our paths crossed on two other occasions in which I experienced the work on its own terms rather than, as at MoMA, as an example of video installation (some of the other works in the MoMA show are decidedly not in its class). Slowly Turning Narrative is installed in a darkened space, in the center of which a large panel, one face mirrored and the other opaque and matte, rotates on a pole. The panel describes a circle nearly the width of the room, and one feels, especially when first entering, as if one has to squeeze in quickly, before it comes round next. Various images are projected on the panel, which reflects other images as well, including mirror images of the spectators lining the walls, and these belong to the content of the work. One face of the panel displays a large head, presumably of the artist himself, who witnesses and comments on the narrative, which comes and goes in resolving and dissolving images, e.g., scenes of children playing or of someone being operated upon. The commentary is a kind of incantatory, iterated identification of what one supposes is the subject of the narrative, namely each human being in his or her humanity: "The one who ..." where the blank is filled with a verb, usually of one syllable: "The one who calls," "The one who stands," "The one who laughs," "The one who ...," all uttered without affect and as a kind of heartbeat, the diastole and systole of ordinary life. There are other sounds against this regular percussive rhythm--cascades of children's voices and the like, fading in and out--as the panel itself presents face and obverse, and the images reflected onto the walls dissolve into visual noise. Youth, age, sickness, health is the "slowly turning narrative" in which our images are taken up and covered over and rotated away. Nothing in the show aims quite so high or succeeds at so philosophical a level.

There is a great deal of philosophy in the work of Gary Hill, one of whose pieces is included in the MoMA show (a substantial exhibition of his work just closed at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, but will open at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City in October), without this guaranteeing that the work itself attains a philosophical level. There is, for example, a videotape of a girl of about 10 years of age reading aloud from Wittgenstein's text on color. The girl stumbles over difficult words, but presses bravely on, covering forty-five minutes of reading time in forty-five minutes of real time (reel = real). I was uncertain what the point of having the text read by a child was--I was reminded of Milton being read to by his daughters in languages they did not understand, like Greek and Hebrew. Readings, recitations, even displayed pages of Heidegger figure in other works, each of which has to be considered to see to what degree the language, being philosophical, contributes to overall meaning. Hill's work is situated somewhere between TV and video art, in the sense that one is often conscious of monitors as monitors, in various sizes and variously arranged, as well as of electrical wires being carefully regimented and treated almost ornamentally.

Let me describe Hill's piece at MoMA, Inasmuch as It Is Always Already Taking Place. "Always already" is a phrase one finds in the writing of Jacques Derrida, used, I think, to deny that something has a beginning; one might say that human language did not have a beginning, that there was no moment when human beings did not "always already" have language, etc., etc. But let's consider the work, which in fact is really quite beautiful, in the way something quite precious and small, like a set of jeweled ornaments, is beautiful. It has the look of a brilliantly installed window at Tiffany's, in which sixteen monitors of various formats and sizes--some are as tiny as cuff links, some as large as a large photograph--are arrayed tastefully. The black wires, which look as if they make the monitors wearable, exactly like pieces of jewelry, are carefully arranged on the window's floor. On each of the monitors a different fragment of a man's body is shown, one of which consists in what is vulgarly known as "the family jewels" (the man is Hill himself, so the piece is a kind of disjointed self-portrait). The body is shown in some kind of minimal movement, from fairly reflexive ones like swallowing to the voluntary movement of a thumb turning the corner of a page. I can make out the words

Seemed to me

the future

present

k at he

The thumb moves the page, then moves the page, then moves the page. Future and present are one, and since it is clear that this is a loop, the thumb always already moved the page when it moves it. I eavesdropped on two women discussing the work, who told me they were trying to identify the body's parts. I offered to help. They had trouble with something that looked "like a breast." It did indeed look that way, but the shadowed knob moved in ways nipples don't. I felt triumphant when I was able to tell them it was an Adam's apple. I studied the piece for a while after they left, but we met up in the Viola installation, where our images mingled and became submerged in the slowly turning narrative. Hill is a gifted artist, but his work vacillates between the sensibility of Radio Shack and that of the philosophy seminar, and it is never easy to decide which side he is really on, and hence what anything really means.

There is a lot for my collector to choose from in New York and Venice this season, and for my readers to experience here at hand. I want to close by singling out the work of an intriguing artist, Tony Oursler. His work at MoMA is not, I feel, fully baked, so I will describe the part I found so singular, and which can easily be imagined detached from the installation. It is a sort of rag doll on the face of which is projected an exceedingly expressive human face. This is the extreme liberation of the image, which is projected onto an external object with which it becomes integral. The face is baleful and suspicious: The eyes look from side to side, the lips are pursed. All at once the doll screams like someone being tortured, "O God, No, No, No ..." and then resumes that extraordinary expression. The screams and the expression seem disconnected, as if the person they characterize were mad. Video makes the doll a great deal more alive than a ventriloquist's dummy; the doll's body makes it somehow less. There are two pieces by Oursler in a wonderful show given over to portraits, installed by Donna De Salvo at The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, Long Island, which you will certainly want to visit if you drive out that way. There, faces projected on the dolls' heads are quite ordinary as human faces go but not as dolls' faces go. They are personages with doll's bodies, and of course souls. One of them says such things as "I enjoy cooking." Or: "I fear doing something evil, to myself or to others." The dolls are in some unaccountable way uncanny, as dolls endowed with life always are, and I am uncertain my collector would want to live with one. But they seem to me to define the threshold of a new age of the video image.
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Title Annotation:television art and video art
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 11, 1995
Words:3902
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