About Time

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In the Hammer Museum’s current video-art survey “Making Time,” Alex Bag’s Untitled (Fall 95) presents us with a generic academic video artist screening excerpts from her yearlong diaristic magnum opus Purse, consisting of 365 seven-hour-long real-time recordings of the inside of her selfsame handbag. Every place she went throughout each day for a year, even the disco and amusement park, is documented in a grainy, jiggling B&W image of jostling cosmetics. The auteur is obviously dead serious, and expects the Work to be taken seriously, probably as some kind of structuralist exegesis of feminine interiority. I am in hell. Thankfully, the Purse artist is not Ms. Bag herself, but merely one of many characters she assumes in a pastiche of videos shot while an undergrad at the School of Visual Art in New York in the mid-’90s. Together, they’re a hilarious and surprisingly touching skewering of the Art World in general and video art in particular — and suggest why today’s video art is so much better than the stuff I remember from my youth.

Video art deserves its reputation as boring. After the first wave of engaging, often funny video artists — Paik, Wegman, Nauman, Viola — the territory was suddenly and aggressively claimed by Faculty Members whose greatest talent lay in successful grant writing, and whose mission was to defend video art’s purity against the taint of broadcast television. Video art was purged of such seductive contaminants as “the ability to capture and hold the attention” and “the communication of pleasurable sensations to the eyes, ears, heart or brain.” The result, through the ’70s and ’80s, was a surfeit of dry, didactic, unwatchable, self-indulgent, tenure-pap that should be cast forever into the lake of fire. But something happened over the last decade. The explosion in the availability of technology has meant that nobody has to jump through some professor’s hoops just to book a PortaPak, and the kaleidoscopic potential of the digital medium has effectively seduced away the last vestiges of the old prejudices. Even the squares now have to tart up their dour dialectics with a bit of sex, or slapstick, or at least some pretty colors. But there also appears to be a tangible generational progression at work. Contemporary video artists have managed to absorb many of the flaws of their immediate predecessors and transform them into surprisingly engaging works of art.

“Making Time,” organized for the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art by Amy Cappellazzo, brings together 32 works that address, to greater and lesser degrees, the common durational ground of video and film. While this theme is prohibitively ambitious and there isn’t any single argument presented in the show, the concept functions to distill the ways in which younger artists have revitalized the medium. One of the most surprising strategies has been to isolate and exaggerate the maddening slowness of bad video art. John Cage once advised, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Works like Ceal Floyer’s Ink on Paper (video) (1999), in which the artist’s unmoving hand holds the point of a felt-tip marker to a sheet of paper for almost two hours — draining the ink from the pen and creating a giant blue dot — grapple precisely with the formal parameters of time-based media. Others, such as Peter Sarkisian’s stunning, verging-on-dorky installation Hover (1999) — a simultaneous five-channel projection of a naked mother and child enclosed in a Plexiglas cube — use time in a once-frowned-upon allegorical way. Rodney Graham’s 1994 work Halcion Sleep, in which the sedated artist lies zonked out in the back of a taxicab driving through Vancouver, takes the narcissism and voyeurism of the many imitators of Warhol’s early work to a softer comedic extreme, framing the static back-seat image of Graham’s supine form with the retinally stimulating display of city lights whizzing past the windows above his oblivious head.

Warhol’s cinematic legacy permeates Making Time.” His eight-hour single-shot Empire opens the show, paired with a somebody-had-to-do-it document by Douglas Gordon of a crowd attending a screening of the Warhol epic. Warhol’s abandonment of hand-painted Pop at the height of his marketability in favor of monumentally boring experimental filmmaking is seldom acknowledged for the immensely risky creative and career decision it was at the time. Some of the works in Making Time teeter on the brink of academic solipsism, but are pulled back by the real star of the show, the brilliant exhibition design by N.Y.-based design group LOT/EK. The Italian-born duo’s industrial recycling aesthetic serves the purposes of a video survey well, creating a surprisingly comfortable theatrical atmosphere with miles of black egg-crate foam, blue lights, and dimly fluorescing orange text panels and walkway strips. But it is the two main viewing galleries that make this one of the best-designed museum exhibits ever.

In the first, a line of about 15 monitors is suspended near the ceiling, each showing a different looped video. The opposite wall is covered with upright blue swimming-pool floats positioned so that viewers can lean against them while listening to the soundtracks through dangling headphones. Bracketed by the two videos that best exemplify the ’90s shift toward unpredictable entertainment value — Bag’s Untitled and Fischli/Weiss’ landmark Rube Goldberg chemistry lesson (and surprising PBS hit) The Way Things Go (1987) — this section also contains excellent exercises in cable-access aesthetics from pioneers Nam June Paik and Steina, droll conceptual parodies by John Baldessari and Type A, and lyrical visual manipulations of time by Bruce Nauman and Dara Friedman. Passing into the second section, the viewer is confronted with a phalanx of large suspended black pyramids jutting from the back of a freestanding structure. These house the projection devices for what, on rounding the corner, turns out to be a series of intimate viewing rooms equipped with black foam-covered benches. The result is an atypically sensitive video-viewing environment conducive to the contemplative mode many of the works demand. In contrast to the musical and narrative soundtracks that dominate Section 1, the works here are mostly silent, or quietly ambient. Standouts include Andrea Bowers’ breathless and keenly observed Waiting (1999), a continuous 45-second loop of a pubescent figure skater kneeling on the ice before a performance; Douglas Gordon’s slo-mo zoom on a kissing couple; Lucy Gunning’s pithily titled Climbing Around My Room (1993); and Stephen Murphy’s Untitled (Butterflies) (1998), a digital landscape reminiscent of Per Kirkeby’s internarrative images for Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves, but bringing something of Warhol’s Empire intentions full circle — it won’t be long before hotel rooms are equipped with glowing, hi-res, Murphyesque digital video-loop LCD screens in place of the omnipresent flower painting diptychs. Who says technology is all bad?

The rest of the show is a series of mostly excellent installations, including Sarkisian’s cube; a delightfully Wegmanesque loop, Drag (1995), in which artist José Antonio Hernández-Diez’s finger is transformed into a racing car; and a compelling 16mm film loop of Dara Friedman demolishing a hotel room, which reverses itself into a looking-glass choreography of impossible redemption. It is an academic truism that “Film is a window and video is a mirror.” I’ve heard this invoked as an excuse for lousy showmanship, technical incompetence, pseudo-intellectual didacticism and torturously trivial self-absorption, usually in the work of second-generation videographers. But when you start layering mirrors against mirrors, things get more interesting and complicated very quickly. The middle generation of video artists, with only two reflective surfaces to bounce off, could only see how bad their haircuts were growing in. No wonder they were so cranky. As the degrees of removal multiply, however, video art has become a fractal fun house brimming with the same wild energy you get from pointing the camera at the monitor — feedback. Artists like Bag, Bowers, Gordon, Hernández-Diez and Friedman, while skipping back to reconnect with the first generation of video artists, have begun harnessing the droning howl of infinitely regressive self-consciousness to unexpectedly redeem the unbearable slightness of their forebears. It’s about time.

Note: Whether directly inspired by “Making Time” or coincidental, Filmforum at the Hammer is screening Michael Snow’s Wavelength at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 27. Wavelength, probably the equal to Warhol’s Empire in its influence on experimental film and video, consists of a single slow zoom across a loft to a picture of the ocean, interspersed with fragmentary narrative chunks and a riveting electronic soundtrack. It is one of the greatest works of 20th-century art considering time as a material. Five bucks. Can’t beat it.

MAKING TIME: Considering Time AS A Material in Contemporary Video & Film | UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd. | Through April 29

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