A couple of weeks ago in a lazy evening of television channel hopping boredom I stumbled across a documentary about the life and work of Japanese born artist, Yayoi Kusama (1929) on BBC4. Kusama, now eighty-five years old continues make work at a prolific rate, obsessively exploring her use of brightly coloured polka dots that swamp, multiply and create the surfaces of her paintings, installations and sculptures . After the documentary had finished the BBC also showed a video piece Kusama made in 1967 titled ‘Kusama’s Self Obliteration’. The film, running at approx twenty-five minutes is a psychedelic, (in every sense of the word) colourful, trippy, fragmented and experimental documentation of the artist as she paints polka dots on animals, people and plants in uniquely created/painted/lit environments also made by Kusama. Perhaps more unusual than the film itself however, was that I watched it in its entirety and from my living room. Yes, it is a sad, sad, lazy but true reality that I am useless at watching video art as I don’t often have the patience to watch it in a gallery even despite having a love of film (in the cinema sense). So I was interested how I felt more willing, more open to watching Kusama’s film because of the lazy convenience and relaxed familiarity of watching it on TV. Does that really matter? Is it better to see a film at all than only see it only in a particular context? And so this post isn’t really about Kusama or that film in particular, but is more of a confession, discussion and question of how and where we view video art in general.
Can video art be viewed outside the context of the gallery and in doing so does it cease to be art?
It’s an uncomfortable confession because there is a kind of snobbery, a ‘dumbing down’ by watching ‘art’ on TV as to a gallery as though some of the quality, the importance and authority of the gallery is lost when the work is shown on TV, which unsettles the fuzzy familiar experience of mainstream entertainment or information programmes. I’ll admit this self consciousness sounds slightly ridiculous but does raise some interesting debates on how context definitely alters not only how we view the work, in terms of time spent (because at home I’m watching Kusama’s film in the comfort of my sofa in my pyjamas) but also alters what the piece means by having it presented on the censored public serving corporation that is the BBC. On one side the eager to please, usually politically correctness of public service broadcasting on the other the anti-establishment, radical and challenging tone of modern art and modern art galleries. The two in many ways don’t, in a natural or all too obvious way, fit together. The censorship and risk-taking of galleries being different to that of the more tightly regulated world of British broadcasting...or so I assume? So it’s very interesting that maybe now the piece is 51 years old that the BBC thinks the public are now art conscious enough to be ready for the experience of a young Japanese woman painting polka dots on naked men and horses (and rightly so albeit better late than never). Maybe more contemporary video art should be shown on television? Would it be allowed? Had the Kusama video not been shown in context to the documentary that proceeded it would it have ever been shown at all? Equally, I wonder what would happen if the BBC decided to show a still of a Hans Holbein, Constable or Van Eyck painting for twenty-five minutes?
I had the opportunity to see this same Kusama film in a gallery when I went to the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Tate Modern two years ago and spent ages looking at the subtle layering of her infinity net paintings and immersive polka dot filled installations but gave little attention to this same film in the context of the gallery installation because (as often) I felt too impatient and excited by seeing all the other work on offer. There are many unspoken anxieties involved in the process of viewing art and one of them is the assumption that having studied art I must automatically be able to appreciate and understand it all. In truth, despite in having what I consider a good knowledge of how to ‘read art’ there’s still much about it that puzzles me which is why I continue to see so much of it (that’s also part of its appeal). However video and film art has remained awkward for me, despite over the years trying to sit through as much of it as my fidgety, nervous excitableness will let me and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Many friends and peers I’ve spoken to have mentioned how the amount of time a film demands its participant to commit is often frustrating compared to that of viewing a painting. You can’t walk into a painting half way, it’s already a frozen moment in time whereas in film you can walk in towards the end, the middle or beginning and have to be much more active and thinking in order to make sense of what is going on. This power struggle of attention between art and viewer is more obvious and directly questioning in video art, “are you going to stay and watch more? Will it all make sense in the end?”
|Christian Marclay 'The Clock' (2010)|
Ironically I am someone that absolutely loves cinema and see some shots from films and works by particular directors as being art or amongst the greatest works of art ever created. Whether they need to be viewed in a gallery, cinema or on the television to be seen this way is perhaps subjective; I just think you have more time and the expectation is different if you plan to see a film instead of accidently seeing it half-way through. Christian Marclay explored the distinction between art and cinema in his 24 hour extravaganza, ‘The Clock’ which used images of clocks or references to the time from thousands of different films to create a 24 hour montage of clips that followed the real time you were watching it (still with me?). This was art as a celebration of cinema, but also showing that the limitation of cinema is that it isn’t set in ‘real time’, its escapism. As an art piece it combined those two things whilst always reminding you how long you’d been watching for and that your watching was happening in the present moment.
Video art gives a creative freedom to film makers that can potentially lead the shift from art world to movie world as is the case with Turner Prize, now Oscar winning artist turned director, Steve McQueen who has been quoted as saying, . “I don’t see much contrast from the art world to the movie world.”Similarly photographer turned Hollywood director, Sam Taylor Wood will be presenting her second directorial outing with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ showing February next year. Or some artists like Matthew Barney remain more creative but equally (if not more so) ambitious away from the consumer-driven industry of cinema with work such as 'The Cremaster Cycle' which is a series of five feature length films but borders on being an immersive sculptural, painterly, installation, musical, performance, film all in one.
The video art I have responded to best is when it acts as something other than film, i.e installed in a space/environment, projected in a room or on a screen like cinema, installation or painting (examples to follow). Every scene should grab you, capture the viewer's interest so that it hold them to stay and watch it all. John Akomfrah’s film ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ (pictured below) being one such example of a film shown as part of the 2012 Liverpool Biennial that was a three-way split screen which filled the room and played three different narratives simultaneously whilst relating to one another to tell the story of cultural theorist and writer Stuart Hall. On a basic level it worked as a documentary, but visually some of the scenes, photography and clever use of the split screen enhanced the emotion and impact of the experience to being more than that of 'just a documentary'.
|John Akomfrah 'The Unfinished Conversation' (2012)|
|Bill Viola 'Martyrs' (2014)|
Elizabeth Price is a video artist that combines text, stock footage and soundtracks to create punchy, mesmerising films. I first saw 'User group disco' (pictured below) as part of the British Art Show at Plymouth and it marked the first piece of video art I watched in a gallery from start to finish. At university in Plymouth, I also proceeded to visit it several more times. This film was brash and hard-hitting in its use of tabloid style text on top of close-up imagery of spinning and whirling kitchen utensils and ornaments; it sort of mesmerized and sucked you in. Although at the same time it was enigmatic enough to make you curious to stay and watch it until the end. It has to be said some of the simplest video art has often been the best, Kader Attia 'Oil and Sugar #2', 2007 (shown Liverpool Biennial 2012) delivers exactly what its title promises as oil is poured onto a stacked cube of sugar cubes. You can already picture what's going to happen, the inevitable collapse of the sugar cubes as they dissolve into the oil, but it is nonetheless watchable because you'd never see how these two materials react together elsewhere.
Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’ (pictured above) shown at St Paul's in London is not only an example of a video piece of art that wouldn't work as well outside its context but also how film can act, in this instance more like a painting, an altar piece with a straight forward narrative of action and consequence, full of elemental symbolism, lighting and framing that borrows itself directly from the language of early Renaissance painting. Viola' s work has been criticised for being 'too obvious' and too readable in its meaning through iconic imagery, but I personally think that their accessibility is part of their appeal and their use of symbolic imagery is archetypal. And the more you look you find there's loads of cross-referencing between painting and film, Peter Greenaway being another example. To look at this another way it is a shame that, generally speaking, we don’t take the same amount of time/attention to viewing painting/sculpture as we do viewing film. Although tellingly this probably reflects the time we are in.
|Elizabeth Price 'User Group Disco' (2009). Watch the video here: http://vimeo.com/36307724|
What it really comes down to is a question of audience, video art in galleries allows for creative freedom and experimentation for artists, it can present new ways of seeing the world and developing/testing new technology. Like all art it can either alienate audiences if you aren’t expecting to spend time watching it or it can open-up and make art more accessible to those unfamiliar or uninterested in painting, printmaking or sculpture. Maybe it is about empowering the audience so they can decide if and when they watch a piece of video art, which is pretty much and has gone without saying, what the internet does already, but then what role does the gallery play? Like painting or sculpture there are plenty of good and bad examples (some of the good hopefully mentioned here) of film art. Despite getting slightly more patient and slightly more knowledgeable over the years I think I will continue to endeavour with my inhibitions around video art; never knowing how long or not to spend viewing the work, whether I should sit on the uncomfortable wooden bench, the floor, or stand in the doorway or back of the room, whether I should walk around and come back to it later, whether I should wait 5 minutes or two; things I never feel as self conscious about when viewing other art, but then they are also reasons why I will continue to enjoy confronting and being challenged and maybe not feeling as guilty for watching it on the television as much as seeing it in the gallery.