Discomfited by video art? That shouldn’t mean discomfort
Source:the art newspaper Author:Ben Luke Date: 2015-03-11 Size:
The increasing number and increasing length of video works is throwing up problems in presentation...

  Video art at the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition at the ICA, London, 26 November 2014-25 January 2015

In The Art Newspaper’s review of 2014 published in December, the artist Grayson Perry was asked what he would change about the art world if he could. He responded: “All video art should have a label telling you: (a) how long the piece is and (b) whether it has a beginning and end. If over five minutes long, sofas should be provided.”

While undoubtedly stated with a familiar sense of mischief, Perry echoes concerns expressed for some time among critics and visitors to art galleries. As long ago as 2002, exasperated critics calculated that Documenta 11 included 600 hours of video. Video art has continued to grow since then, in terms of the sheer volume being produced and in the form it takes—particularly the increasing number of feature-length, filmic works made by artists. Museums and galleries are charged with keeping up as the boundaries are pushed, but especially when it comes to group exhibitions and biennials featuring multiple moving-image works, they often seem to be struggling.

Two London shows at the end of last year are a case in point. The Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain featured three artists working with the moving image, including Duncan Campbell, whose 54-minute film It for Others (2013) won him the prize. Even this four-person show felt unwieldy: Campbell’s long film was in the final room and had scheduled, though unadvertised, start times. Anyone who saw the film in full would recognise that it was crucial to see it from start to finish, yet many people would have been denied the opportunity to do so, unless they timed their visit correctly. Aside from the visitor, was this fair on Campbell? How many people were denied the opportunity to properly experience his work?

Just as Campbell won the award, the annual Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition, an important showcase for final-year art-school students and recent graduates, was opening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, with 22 of the 55 artists showing video, either as a document of performances or as standalone video art, some in a compilation on a big screen, others on monitors. The total time needed to see them all would have been four hours. Again, this arrangement seems unfair on the artists—which works you saw was something of a lottery.

The issue is important, because it’s abundantly clear that film and video are increasingly the medium of choice for many young artists. It’s hardly surprising in an screen-saturated world, where high-definition video can be shot on a smartphone. It’s important to state that it is not a trend: video art is a 50-year-old tradition and the seeds of its current dominance lie in the first impulses of its early adopters in the 1960s. As Christine Hill, the curator of a show of early video art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1997, wrote: “A fundamental idea held by [the] first generation of video artists was that in order to have a critical relationship with a televisual society you must primarily participate televisually.”

We still live in that televisual, and now also internet-driven, society: many artists inevitably respond to it. I would argue that several film and video works are among the great works of this century so far, such as Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art, New York and in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Tate, the Pompidou and others, and Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006), owned by the Guggenheim and the Tate. Notably, both are long: Marclay’s video is 24 hours long and looped, so theoretically endless; Kodak is 44 minutes long, and again, looped. Significantly, previous showings of both films would meet with Perry’s approval: The Clock was first shown at White Cube with plentiful sofas; Kodak at Tate Britain with comfortable armchairs.

The comfort issue is not trivial. For much of video art’s history, it has not been an issue: the presentation of film and video in galleries has always operated at a remove from the cinema, with the work often dispensing with narrative, being shown on loops with no fixed beginning and end. In the case of video installations, operating somewhere between film and sculpture, the space in which they’re shown and the viewer’s movement through that space is a crucial component. Until relatively recently, most video art was also relatively short compared to cinematic works.

But this is increasingly being challenged. Chrissie Iles, curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, told The Art Newspaper in 2012 that artists are “almost reclaiming the cinematic experience for themselves and building it inside the museum”. Thus, artists like Campbell, with his 54-minute Turner Prize film, and his fellow Glasgow artist Luke Fowler, with his 93-minute film All Divided Selves, are showing their films with defined start and end points. Often they are shown more conventionally, in auditoria, but showings within exhibitions are more problematic. The leather benches provided for the viewing of Campbell’s film at the Tate were clearly not designed to be sat on for long periods.

Discomfort is hardwired into the history of modernism. The curator John Elderfield, in a letter to the British painter Howard Hodgkin, wrote about “the modern attraction to difficulty”, and how “the modern works we deem most important are precisely those most resistant to narrative explanation”. This is certainly true of much film and video, but it doesn’t follow that difficult or discomfiting art necessitates physical discomfort. Avant-garde films don’t lose any of their power when viewed from the comfort of a cinema seat; neither should video works.

Several events this year will no doubt add to the debate, among them the latest in the New Museum in New York’s triennial shows of emerging artists, “Surround Audience”, co-curated by the video artist Ryan Trecartin and featuring numerous screen-based works. Meanwhile, this year’s Venice Biennale is curated by Okwui Enwezor, who was at the helm of the 600-hour Documenta.

The question for the curators of these and other contemporary shows is how to harness the power of video art pieces amid dozens of other works. Because still, too often, video is shown in ways that diminish the transmission of the artists’ intention and impoverish the viewers’ experience.

[Editor] 万兰