Tag Archives: video

New York

Stars explode around you…

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012 Nine channel HD video projection. Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012
Nine channel HD video projection.
Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

Pulling back the black curtain and stepping into the darkness, we were quickly enveloped by a lulling, melancholy melody.  “Stars explode around you, and there’s nothing, no nothing you can do…” sang a chorus of voices. My friend and I turned to each other with broad smiles on our faces. After this brief moment of acknowledgement that we had happened upon something wonderful, we each slipped among the crowd and into The Visitors.

The installation of Ragnar Kjartansson’s piece at Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea, is comprised of ten large videos that are projected into the gallery walls and onto both sides of a screen that divides the space. In nine of the ten videos, a single musician is alone in a room, playing their part of a collective melody. In the tenth video, a group of people mill around on the porch of a large, Hudson Valley farmhouse, seemingly listening to the music and occasionally adding their voices to the chorus. This group provided context, an internal audience, and a little distance: the haunting sweetness of the melody, the mournful poetry (by artist Ásdis Sif Gunnarsdóttir) of the lyrics, and the intensity of the visuals were almost overwhelming, so a retreat to the porch provided a welcome break.

Installation View. Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012 Nine channel HD video projection. Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

Installation View. Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012
Nine channel HD video projection.
Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

Each musician infused the simple words and melody with their own sensibility, a detail that the artist retained by keeping the sound tracks separate. As a viewer, I was free to roam within the space, finding a sweet spot where I seemed to be in the room with both the emotionally raw accordion player and the grounded, bluesy pianist, or allowing myself the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the guitarist (who, it turns out, is the artist) forlornly strumming in the bath. The videos are carefully composed, full of interesting visual details (birds flocking across a bedroom wall, the curve of a wooden banister, the bright blue inside of full kitchen cabinets) that seem to echo the tone and body language of the separate room’s inhabitant, enhancing the sense that the musicians are in their own little worlds.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012 Nine channel HD video projection. Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012
Nine channel HD video projection.
Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

Though the musicians played alone, they were all connected via headphones and wires that snaked around the wooden furniture and delicate antiques. At one moment, one guitar player set down his instrument to go share a cigarette and a drink with his buddy in the next room, where they then harmonized as the music swelled around us. The freedom of the performers, the “in-the-round” set-up,  and the single, unedited take, gave the video(s) a feeling similar to live theater–a living, breathing spectacle, rather than a video to speculate upon from a safe distance.

The choice of an upstate farmhouse was perfect, not only because of the warm, ramshackle decor, but because upstate is where so many New Yorkers (artists or otherwise) go to escape the city. This felt like a little slice of an artist’s retreat, smuggled back into the heart of New York’s gallery scene

The show closes March 9th. Go see it if you can.

New York

Maybe she’s lonely because no one can see her…

The Krazyhouse (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee), Liverpool, UK, 2009
Four-channel HD video projection, with sound, 32 min., looped
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
© Rineke Dijkstra

To create the video installation The Krazyhouse, Rineke Dijkstra built a white wooden studio within a club in Liverpool (The Krazyhouse) and filmed a selection of club patrons dancing alone to music of their choice. The resulting piece includes footage of five different individuals, projected on four different walls of a single room. It may not sound that exciting to watch an amateur clubber dance alone in front of a white wall, but Dijkstra cannily tunes into the energy of her subject and carefully reveals something thrilling in the human.

The most compelling of the clubbers was Dee. For the first couple of minutes of music she moved slowly and awkwardly, like a teenage girl with stage fright or someone who is playing out possible dance moves in her head but can’t quite let them out into her body.  But then, almost imperceptibly, Dee’s energy shifted and I found myself watching a young woman confidently shaking, shimmying and lip syncing, reveling in the moment.

This video installation was one of the most recent pieces in Dijkstra’s retrospective at the Guggenheim and it brought together many of the themes that emerged through the 30 years of work—raw vulnerability, the experience of looking and being seen, the performance of identity—but most specifically pinpointed the unlikely relationship between shy discomfort and confident self-assertion. Rather than being opposites, Dijkstra’s work suggests that they are interconnected aspects of an honest projection of self; in these dancers, confidence is tinged around the edges with the shy desire to be seen. The moment of Dee’s transformation was a moment I have experienced a hundred times over on dance floors, at social gatherings, in the work place–the moment of crossing a threshold from internal to external, of learning to relax into performing myself.

Rineke Dijkstra
I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009
Three-channel HD video projection, with sound, 12 min., looped
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
© Rineke Dijkstra

In another of Dijkstra’s video projects, I see a Woman Crying, a group of Liverpudlian school children respond to Picasso’s Woman Weeping. The camera rests on the children, never turning to look at the painting in question, focusing our attention on the interactions among the children. Unlike Dijkstra’s portraits, where the subjects directly confront us, here the painting acts as the mediator.

The children begin reticent, cautiously describing what they see in the image—“I can see a woman crying” — and gradually gain momentum in speculating upon the precise emotions and the narrative that created them. Their insights range from “maybe she is crying because no one looks like her” and “other people are scared of her” (this is after all a cubist piece of Picasso’s) to “maybe she is a ghost” and “she’s lonely because no one can see her.” There is an interesting interplay between the suggestibility of the students as they roll with each other’s ideas, and the revelation of individual emotional landscapes through the specific comments they make.

During the artist talk last Tuesday, Dijkstra said that she is looking for an exchange to happen between her and her subject,and that in a successful piece there is “a recognition of something truthful in that person.” In that hunt for truthfulness Dijkstra both reveals the isolation of our interiors and the longing to have that interior be honestly seen.

Los Angeles

Nature and Free Animals

In Nature and Free Animals, English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) imagines God berating her for the domestication of dogs, for teaching them “the sicknesses of your mind and the sicknesses of your body.”  She responds petulantly that “it’s all very well to talk like this” and to complain about the way humans treat animals, but reminds God that he created humans and if he doesn’t like the way we act then he only has himself to blame. The poem ends: “What with Nature and Free Animals on the one side/And you on the other,/I hardly know I’m alive.”

Smith’s poem weaves together her anger at the subjugation of animals and her own struggle to find meaning as a human. Though not explicitly stated, I interpret her long struggle with God (he occurs frequently throughout her oeuvre) as a tool for discussing her struggles with patriarchy. In Nature and Free Animals she expresses her paralysis as a woman: not completely free, as she imagines wild animals to be, yet also denied the full agency of a man. Her disgust at the weak servility of dogs is a thinly veiled expression of her feelings towards the role of a wife in the early 20th century.

But Smith is nothing if not ambivalent, and she doesn’t let herself or others of her gender off the hook. By shifting the identity of the speaker in the middle of the poem, the accusation is directed first at the reader, then at herself, then at “God.” No one, even the animals, is blameless and the unequal distribution of power causes unease and dissatisfaction for all parties.

This poem came to mind as I was trying to make sense of the recent works of artists Erin Payne and Amber Hawk Swanson. Though quite different in tone and intention–Payne’s surrogates provide tentative comfort, while Swanson’s is an unnerving reminder of abuse–both artists have created animal surrogates to tackle the messy web of relationships in which they find themselves.

Western Burrowing Owl

Western Burrowing Owl

For the collaborative endeavor In a Landscape where Nothing Officially Exists, a performance/installation that took place at this year’s CAA in Los Angeles, Erin Payne created ragdoll versions of five Californian species that are facing extinction, and then painted portraits of the dolls. The puppets were inspired by the surrogate puppets used to feed the California Condor chicks that are raised in captivity. Simultaneously quiet memorials and loosely rendered playthings, the paintings straddle the childish fantasy of connection with nature and the rational adult, human-centric perspective.

We have a strong imaginative and instinctive attraction to nature and Payne’s pieces capture the primitive desire to connect, understand and represent our natural surroundings.  Dai Toyofuku, one of the artists who organized In a Landscape, suggested that ever since the cave paintings of Chauvet we have been attempting to understand what it means to be human and our own role in the ecosystem by depicting animals. He believes that a deeper engagement with other species as equals would lead to a richer understanding of our own humanity. In creating portraits of the dolls, (what could be more representative of our individualistic, human centered perspective than a portrait?) Payne draws attention to our inability to see animals outside of our own human paradigm and the gaping cultural gap that exists between us and other species.

Yosemite Toad

Yosemite Toad

The Yosemite Toad feels like a familiar storybook character laid out ready for dissection or accidentally suffocated by a curious child (yes, I did that and clearly I still feel guilty), reminding the viewer that our desire to interact with nature often causes more harm than good. Even our attempts at sustainable living can end up making matters worse.

Playing with the flattened perspective of childhood (a world in which dodos and flamingos and talking mice are equally real) Payne brings us forward in time to the point where more familiar creatures (owls, frogs, song birds) start to exist only as fantasies. When our lives are already so removed from nature, does it really make a difference whether these species exist or not?

Tilikum, in progress.

Tilikum, in progress.

Where Payne focuses on the psychology of human responsibility in specific relationship to animals, Amber Hawk Swanson’s Amber Doll->Tilikum transformation highlights the aggressive potential of the oppressed and the destructiveness of captivity in both human-animal and human-human relationships. Over the course of ten days Swanson dismantled the RealDoll Amber (a sex doll made in her likeness, to whom she was married) and resurrected her as a human scale version of  Tilikum, a bull orca whale held in captivity at Sea World. Tilikum is a year younger than Swanson and has been in captivity for almost his entire life. During that time he has killed three people.

Through To Have and To Hold and To Violate: Amber and Doll, Swanson explored issues of agency, power and culpability, witnessing and allowing her Doll self/partner to be violated by strangers. In transforming that same doll into Tilikum, she suggestively ties together the narrative of an aggressive animal in captivity and her own treatment of Amber Doll. Two of the human’s that Tilikum has killed have been his trainers, people with whom he has worked for many years.  In both those instances he did so during performances, implicating the audience in his attacks: if no one paid to see those shows, Tilikum wouldn’t be in captivity and wouldn’t be acting out. The human scale and homemade quality of Swanson’s Tilikum further emphasize our readiness to consume Tilikum and our inability to see him on his own terms.

Seeing the flotsam and jetsam of a human reconstructed as a slightly cartoonish, DIY killer whale is both humorous and disturbing. The fake breasts flopping at the end of the whale’s tail scream of artifice and objectification, tying the physical damage inflicted upon Tilikum by the limitations of his captive existence to the psychological damage of women in a misogynist society.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

But the beauty of Swanson’s work is that, like Smith, she is not making a simple victim out of Tilikum or herself. If the goal of the Amber Doll project was to have victim and victimizer exist simultaneously, Tilikum is the way for them to merge into one contradictory object. Swanson directly inserts herself back into the frame as both sexual aggressor and sexual object, her stiletto jauntily echoing Tilikum’s tail fin, reminding us of the erotic frisson created by a power imbalance.  Where Smith looked with jealous unease at “wild” animals, Swanson comfortably aligns herself with that wildness.

London Los Angeles

Seductive Technique: Christian Marclay and David Hockney

Film Still from Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2009

To create The Clock (2009), Christian Marclay edited together thousands of film clips showing time pieces into a literal clock: a 24 hour artwork that constantly refers to the precise time. LACMA purchased the piece and recently screened the film for a second time. When I showed up at 5:45 on a Saturday night, the large auditorium was packed.

The day after I saw it, someone told me that this is their favorite piece of visual art. EVER.

Film Still from Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2009

The Clock is a compelling meditation on how we conceptualize and experience time, interwoven with a  journey through cinematic history. Marclay plays to the human brain’s predisposition for patterns and the pleasure of recognition, while skillfully using the tools of cinema to subvert our expectations of the medium: anticipation builds and falls, builds and falls, teasing the viewer but never quite reaching a climax.

When I was in London last month, I was lucky enough to witness a similarly hypnotic and popular spectacle: Hockney’s The Bigger Picture that closed this past week at the Royal Academy.

Woldgate Woods, East Yorkshire, 2006.Photograph: David Hockney

Even as he focuses on Yorkshire landscapes, Los Angeles’ influence on Hockney’s viewpoint is clear: cinematic, bright, playful and, especially in some of the totem pieces, slightly apocalyptic. In the more interesting pieces on display at the RA, Hockney’s tendencies for crisp light and striking patterns mingled with the damp, pastoral prettiness of the English countryside to create paintings that were seductive, specific and odd–the landscape painting equivalent of magical realism.

A Closer Winter Tunnel, Feb-Mar, 2006.Photograph: David Hockney / Art Gallery of New South Wales

After moving through nine or ten rooms bursting with trees and pigment, the exhibition led me into a darkened room displaying Hockney’s video pieces. The videos were reminiscent of his photo-collages of the 1980s, capturing space –the woods and paths of Yorkshire as well as his studio interior– using multiple perspectives. The subtle movement and quiet sounds created a gentle rhythmic effect, similar to riding in a train or bobbing in a boat on calm waters. When I was there, a crowd of at least 60 people sat totally mesmerized, watching leaves rustle in the wind.

Just like after the Marclay show, post-Hockney someone told me that they weren’t aware of having a favorite artist before seeing The Bigger Picture (not counting their friends of course) but now Hockney was their number one. Perhaps my friends are particularly prone to hyperbole, but I think that their reactions are a fair sampling of the art-viewing public. So why were  these two shows so popular, especially at a point in time when we are being constantly told that our attention spans are decreasing?

7 November 11.30am & 26 November 9.30am 2010, Woldgate Woods, East Yorkshire. Film still. Photograph: David Hockney

Both Hockney and Marclay use familiar imagery and emphasize visual pleasure. But more than that, they create a specific type of mental experience, that allows the viewer to get lost.  The mind is not able to leave the building and ponder the same stressful thoughts it carries around all day, but it is also not so busy trying to follow the narrative or critically analyze the material that it has to be completely present. Instead, these artworks encourage the audience to turn off some part of their rational mind and relax into the imagery, creating the sort of focused day dreaming that is supposedly excellent for our creativity and mental health.

I think artists sometimes forget that art viewing can be simultaneously stimulating and relaxing –to be honest sometimes I forget that viewers exist at all– and that if the goal is to create better viewers–viewers who are sensitive, imaginative and mindful human beings– then perhaps a lulling seduction is more effective than an aggressive assault.


Nowt so Queer as Folk: Jeremy Deller’s Social Surrealism

David Shrigley Banner, The Southbank Center,London  

David Shrigley’s smartly satirical banner, revolting against the dreary London sky, is a fitting prologue to Jeremy Deller’s sincere and political mid-career survey, Joy in People. Shrigley’s work, which is also on view at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre, is humorous and mildly disturbing –watch this video to see what I mean– and was well worth the visit. But it was Deller’s work that I have found myself discussing, questioning and digesting over the last two weeks.

Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009). During the show visitors can enjoy free cups of tea while watching a video of the procession Deller organized in Manchester. Photo by Linda Nylind

The show Joy in People documents Deller’s “social surrealism” projects from 1993 through the present. A definitive relational artist, Deller’s role in his works shifts between collaborator, facilitator, patron and documentarian. He interweaves the quirks and questions of daily life (bathroom stall graffiti, struggling with an unruly deck chair, “whatever happened to Bez from the Happy Mondays?”) with the larger arcs of social history and politics that we all play a part in. Unlike relational artists who have used interaction as a  metaphysical tool (think Felix Gonzales-Torres or Rikrit Tirivanija), Deller’s work is useful: empathy and dialogue are direct results of his historical reenactment, the greasy pole monument allows a town to continue one of their folk traditions, and his London Bat house project provides protected species with a replacement for habitats destroyed by development.

In The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is An Injury to All), 2001, Deller reenacts one of the more violent confrontations of the 1984-85 British miners’ strike.

One of the last sections of the exhibit documented Deller’s failures, including his rejected proposals for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square and the London Tube map. In one of the plinth proposals, scientist David Kelly -who killed himself after being accused of telling the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction to journalists- sits with his legs hanging over the edge of the plinth, trying to edge out of the spotlight that history has given him. His story echoes that of the Yorkshire policeman in The Battle of Orgreave (2001), who joined the force to serve his community and ended up “helping to destroy it”. In that same film, MP Tony Benn quotes the adage “In war, truth is the first casualty.” But the stories of these two men suggest something darker and more complex about the ways truth and morality can be manipulated by those in power, and the casualties that result.

Rejected proposal for the Fourth Plinth, with David Kelly. Copyright Jeremy Deller.

Though all Deller’s plinth proposals failed, he did eventually design a successful cover for the Tube map: a portrait of the longest serving TfL employee, executed by artist Paul Ryan.

In an interview recorded when Deller was a nominee for the 2004 Turner Prize (which he subsequently won), he confidently declared that he does not care whether what he does is art or not, and I agree that this debate is not interesting. However, it is interesting to look at how Deller has navigated through his projects, both using and expanding the position of “artist.” This position gives Deller access to various cultural and political institutions, and allows him to come into charged situations as a somewhat unbiased outsider. The fact that he is an artist, and not a scholar or journalist, also gives him the latitude to explore ideas backwards and inside out, focusing on the details and characters that peak his interest. He is not the first artist to use the role this way, but his playful disregard for the boundaries of art making, and the ranging scope of his interests, felt fresh. And as an artist, it felt like a call to action.


Dance me through the Musée

This week I had an unexpected 32-hour layover in Paris (trust me, my life is not as glamourous as it sounds). With the mental and monetary resources for only one museum, I chose the Centre Pompidou. Their current special exhibition, Danser Sa Vie, interweaves elegant works by the likes of Rodin, Matisse and Warhol, with videos, photos and sketches of dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer. The contemporary works that were part of the exhibition happened to be some of the more interesting video pieces I have seen in a while –either that, or video art is ideally viewed through the haze of jetlag.

Still from Movement Microscope, 2011(c) Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson’s Movement Microscope, made especially for this exhibition, is a 15 minute video that documents a day in the life of his studio. Interspersed with the regular routine, were moments of synchronicity between  people, conversations through gestures and the occasional body going refreshingly awry.  Throughout, the line blurred between performative movement and the measured motions of practiced craft and habit. Though not a new idea, Eliasson’s piece captured simply the ideas of much of the modern dance pieces in the previous rooms: the link between interior and exterior; the body as machine versus the body as natural force. The video also provided an interesting insight into the contemporary art studio as a collaborative space, where technology, nature and humans all collide.

Another piece that had me hypnotized, was French artist Nicolas Floc’h’s Performance Painting #2. In this piece, dancer Rachid Ouramdane stands in one spot, under two steady drips of black paint. The tension mounts as the black residue builds up on the performer’s clothes and skin, growing more menacing with each drip, and his gestures progress from small reactive twitches, to refined responsive motions and then to aggressive flinging of his limbs.

Video Still from Performance Painting #2, 2011 (c) Nicolas Floc’h

Performance Painting #2 played opposite the iconic video of Jackson Pollock at work and a still of Carollee Schneeman’s  Up to and Including Her Limits, underlining the obvious ancestral link between these pieces: all three artists use a very simple set-up to trace the movements of their body through space, and document the drama that evolves within one solitary human. Perhaps the black paint within which the performer dances and flails represents the anxiety of influence; perhaps it is a reference to forms of seemingly innocuous torture; or maybe it is just an excuse to watch the human body do it’s thing. Whatever the artist’s intention, the  quiet darkness had me entranced.

Towards the end of the exhibition were a pair of Felix Gonzales-Torres works, Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) 1991 and Untitled (Arena) 1993.  Arena consists of a square of lights, strung in a corner, with two headsets on the adjacent wall. I watched as a middle-aged German couple put on the headsets and started to dance together under the lights.  This piece provides the conditions for intimacy and, similar to his well-known Perfect Lovers, emphasizes the transience and vulnerability of a harmonious union–once the dancing couple stopped, the square of light became an active emptiness, eerily peaceful but longing for human occupancy. I don’t know what music the headsets played as I didn’t venture into the work, but I imagined something poetic and bittersweet: Gonzales-Torres was painfully aware that humans don’t run like clockwork and all dances come to an end.