The Right Footage
The setting of the video looks like a European Sam's Wholesale with foreign groceries. But the place is trashed. Throughout the store, casually but crisply dressed Europeans are crumbling bags of crunchy processed foods and shredding toilet paper (of course, that crappy European toilet paper should be destroyed). An elderly lady stamps her foot on what looks like corn flakes, and two guys systematically smash a wall. Everyone's methodically and intently destroying something, and you have no idea why -- which makes the video fascinating. Pulverous (2003) is by Dutch artist Aernout Mik, and something about the low-key controlled chaos of the scene seems very Dutch -- after all, the Dutch manage to calmly, pragmatically regulate sex and drugs.
The piece is part of "Fade In: New Film and Video" at the Contemporary Arts Museum, a group of works by eight international artists curated by Paola Morsiani. There are myriad formal approaches to using film and video in art. The most familiar one, single channel or theatrical screening, presents them traditionally. Other approaches use moving images in installations, at events, as part of art objects -- the list is endless.
Pulverous is projected from the center of the gallery so that it shares the viewer's space and makes you feel like the destruction is happening in the same room. But most of the work in "Fade In" is presented as single channel or theatrical screening. Mexican artist Fernando Ortega's Casting (2003) uses footage taken from a real casting call for a piano bar musician, shot in a grubby practice room. The camera remains fixed at the side of the instrument, recording performances that range from average to marginally professional. But it's not the music you focus on, it's the people. They lean into the piano or sit upright; they're tentative or workmanlike or schmaltzy; they wear jeans or a stiffly pressed light blue suit or, in the case of one Liberace manqué, tinted blue glasses, a scarf and a bouffant toupee. When they finish, they look down shyly, grin cheesily or glance away. Where Mik's work is a kind of group performance, Ortega has crafted a fascinating video by setting up a framework that allows random strangers to participate and unknowingly collaborate.
American Luis Gispert's installation, Foxy Xerox (2003), is a witty take on the appropriation of hip-hop culture by white America. On one wall, a blond girl in a pale blue terry sweat suit and lots of gold jewelry dances to a hip-hop track. On the opposite wall, we see the same girl in a pink sweat suit, wearing a black wig and blackface, which is, of course, jolting for anybody who didn't grow up in the 1930s. It has obviously unsettling associations, but here Gispert is using it to effectively parody white emulation of black culture. The girl's makeup is unconvincingly applied and smeared all over her clothes as she tries really, really hard and really, really unsuccessfully to be something she isn't.
A couple of the pieces could be vastly improved by some editing and self-restraint on the part of the artists. Israeli artist Doron Solomons has got a lot of ideas going on in his video Father (2002). There's enough material here for more than one video: computer animation, home videos, news segments, car safety tests and videotaped suicide notes. The artist is commenting on being a father and living in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he's throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.
Solomon, a video editor at an Israeli TV station, has access to some striking censored footage. The segment "These two girls are about to die" is incredibly powerful. Two video clips of young female suicide bombers are shown side by side. One sits silently at a desk, wearing camouflage, her frightened eyes staring out from the kaffiyeh that disguises her. The other wears a white hijab that demurely frames her pretty face. She's shyly drinking tea before delivering her suicide statement. You wonder what spurs these girls toward death -- and murder. Desperation? Indoctrination? Solomon has provocative images, strong ideas and a deft hand with audio, but he needs to pare things down and tighten his focus.
Self-absorption is a common artistic pitfall, and unless that's the point of your work, it can be a distraction. This the case with Ariana (2003), a film shot by French artist Marine Hugonnier and her camera crew. The film has some amazingly beautiful and evocative shots of an idyllic region in Afghanistan that's so remote it escaped the communists, the Taliban and the United States. These are wonderfully communicative and well-selected shots, undercut by the strange nocturnal beauty of distant gunfire. The problem is that the artist includes an extraneous narrative about the group's failure to get a conceptual panoramic shot, how the crew felt "low and aimless" and how the car broke down. You just want to tell her to be quiet and let the images speak for themselves.
American Jessica Bronson is the artist who departs the most from traditional presentation of moving image. Perceptual perpetual (about a rose) is a wall-mounted work in which LED text is compressed into narrow rectangular boxes. It's visible only when you move; you see the words fleetingly out of the corner of your eye. And Bronson's five lobed and propagating is an Andy Mann-esque kaleidoscopic image of a rose shown on a wall-mounted flat-screen monitor like a changing painting. It makes you want someone to develop a borderless monitor that acts like a canvas.
Artists have been using film and video since the early 1960s, but at a recent panel on new media in Houston, a local arts professional questioned its worth as an art form. It's a debate most people consider long over. Film and video are tools like any others.
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