video art for the cinema

matthew clayfield sees latin american video at ngv

Óscar Muñoz, still from Proyecto para un memorial (Project for a Memorial) 2003-05

Óscar Muñoz, still from Proyecto para un memorial (Project for a Memorial) 2003-05

Óscar Muñoz, still from Proyecto para un memorial (Project for a Memorial) 2003-05

HIRAKI SAWA’S SIX GOOD REASONS TO STAY AT HOME, WHICH THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA EXHIBITED CLOSE TO EIGHTEEN MONTHS AGO, REMAINS THE SINGLE MOST IMPRESSIVE EXHIBITION OF VIDEO WORKS I HAVE SEEN IN MELBOURNE. LIKE THE LATE JEREMY BLAKE’S DIGITAL PAINTINGS, SAWA’S DREAM-LIKE EXPLORATIONS OF THE DOMESTIC SPHERE ARE PRECISELY THE SORT OF VIDEO ART THAT IS WORTHY OF THE TITLE. LIKE AN EXCELLENT PAINTING OR PRINT, THESE VIDEOS DEMAND TO BE PROJECTED ONTO A WALL, ADMIRED FOR THE BEAUTY OF THEIR FORM AND THE INTELLIGENCE OF THEIR REALISATION. MUCH VIDEO ART, ADMIRED EITHER FOR SHOCK VALUE OR FOR OUTRIGHT UNWATCHABILITY, DEMANDS TO BE TURNED AWAY FROM.

The NGV’s current exhibition, Resonant Visions: Contemporary Video from Latin America, is less successful than some of the gallery’s previous events. As an overview with only three works, it is obviously incomplete, perhaps serving as the most threadbare of introductions.

Óscar Muñoz’s Proyecto para un memorial (Project for a Memorial), 2003-05, is the strongest of the three pieces, primarily for the manner in which it manages to operate across multiple levels of meaning. Controlled by an unseen hand, a paintbrush dipped in water dashes off a portrait on a canvas of cold, grey concrete. The face is dark and serious, its features detailed enough to be legible without our seeing into its eyes. The portrait finished, the brush moves on to another of the installation’s five screens, where it promptly begins work on another face. But as soon as it does so, the first image begins to evaporate. By the time the paintbrush has started work on its third or fifth portraits, the original face has faded to the point where only two small splashes of water remain, where the eyes used to be. It’s a bit like watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso (1956) in reverse. An ostensible lament for the disappeared persons of Latin America, the work might also be seen as a profound meditation on the ephemerality— perhaps even the essential hopelessness—of art.

By contrast, Sebastian Diaz Morales’ Lucharemos hasta anular la ley (We shall fight until the law is cancelled), 2004, has only its political meaning to bet on: everything else comes second to the expression of the political sentiment. However, Diaz Morales aestheticises his source footage of political violence in Buenos Aires to such an extent that both his political and aesthetic points are unnecessarily blunted. On the one hand, the various filters and slow-motion effects applied to the video’s documentary source footage render the concrete struggles it depicts suddenly abstract and unreal. On the other hand, the knowledge that this violence is real renders the aesthetic effects merely and intrusively decorative, detracting from any affective charge they may have carried in and of themselves.

While Diaz Morale’s work highlights the problems with video art as a medium for political expression, the manner in which the three works have been forced to share the exhibition space with one another highlights the inherent problems with the art gallery as a site of exhibition.

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, still from Returning As Sound (2004)

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, still from Returning As Sound (2004)

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, still from Returning As Sound (2004)

This is particularly true of the weakest of the three works, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Returning a sound, 2004. A perfect example of how contemporary art has a tendency to rely too heavily on the discourse of the artist for its meaning, the work is a six-minute video showing a young man riding through luscious countryside on a motorcycle fixed with a trumpet for a muffler. It makes the bike sound a little like an agitated wasp.

Reading the room notes a little later, the work’s political import becomes fully apparent: the young man is in fact a symbol of civil disobedience; the luscious countryside is that of Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico used by the US Navy as a weapons-testing range from 1941 to 2003; and the trumpet is a symbol of US military might, re-appropriated by the people of the island (and, one assumes, their motorbikes). This is all very well and good, except that, on its own, the work expresses none of this and in fact comes across as little more than a novelty. Shot and cut in conventional chronological order, the video’s only formal interest is in the varying pitch of the buzzing trumpet-exhaust, though the aural possibilities of this device are not explored in any systematic manner. What’s more, the works with which Returning As Sound shares gallery space are almost completely silent, and the motorcycle’s six-minute solo permeates one’s experience of these pieces in a manner not entirely at one with their intended effects.

Indeed, one leaves the exhibition with a niggling suspicion that a gallery space was not the right place for it. A cinema might have been more appropriate. The point of difference between video art and experimental film is left looking all forlorn.

Resonant Visions: Contemporary Video from Latin America, UBS Contemporary Art Galleries, NGV International, Melbourne,
Feb 16-Aug 17

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 24

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2008