19 Pioneering Visual Artists Step "Into the Light" at the Whitney
"I am a camera with its shutter wide open, quite passive, recording, not thinking," Christopher Isherwood wrote in the opening lines of the Berlin Stories. Penned in 1930, Isherwood's dispassionate description of himself reflected the then common view of the photographic camera as the ultimate objective observer, while suggesting, in the words of contemporary video artist Paul Pfeiffer, that "like a guilty wish or an unconscious desire, technology is already deep inside of you."
Though more than 70 years separate the words of these two artists, an event nearly equidistant in time from both Isherwood's Weimar Germany and Pfeiffer's 21st-century New York brings them together into a single continuum: the invention and introduction of Sony's cheap, portable video camera in 1965. Picked up by artists like Frank Gillette, Peter Campus and Nam June Paik?who, after recording images with the new camera, showed the world's first art video hours later at Greenwich Village's Cafe à Go Go?the Sony Portapak democratized the use of the moving image by visual artists. Without it, it is unlikely that the early artistic experiments in film and video now on exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art would find anything akin to a substantial echo today.
Arguably the first exhibition of its kind seriously to examine the young-ish history of the moving image in the visual arts, the Whitney's "Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977" charts the baby steps of moving pictures as interpreted by 19 pioneering visual artists?among them Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol?through a handful of different media. Made up of films, slides, videos and holographic and photographic projections, the poetically titled "Into the Light" delves into the work of largely unsung precursors of today's ubiquitous artist videos and DVDs. If you've ever wondered how those banks of monitors, wall-sized projections and flat screens made it into blockbuster exhibitions, museums and galleries, this exhibit might give you something of an idea.
Whitney's curator of film and video, Chrissie Iles, places the exhibition's focus squarely on the first generation of experimental artists to engage in art's initial phase of moving image r&d. Coming rather late to the practice (the world's first film was, after all, screened by the Lumière brothers in Paris in 1895), the visual artists of the 60s and 70s approached moving images squarely within the narrow strictures of the age's hermetic art and theory. Minimalism and conceptualism, like fringed jackets and Frank Zappa, were all the rage then. Process art, performance, happenings and other "de-centered" artistic practices banished notions of "nature" and "objecthood" for investigations conducted within a misty, pseudo-scientific realm. In the words of artist Paul Sharits, the prevailing impulses of the age's vanguardist culture and artmaking took on a peculiarly groovy, laboratory-like veneer: "investigation, measurement, documentation, methodology as subject matter, art as research."
Of course, the problem with many conceptual-minded, postminimal artists, then as now, is that like latter-day Christopher Columbuses they tend to "discover" new continents in other people's backyards. Though early video artists like Paik, La Monte Young and Steina Vasulka pioneered the use of video and electronic music, and others, like the collective Videofreex, promoted alternative television programming, many of the first artists to use moving images either borrowed liberally from commercial films by narrative auteurs like Bertolucci and Hitchcock or simply restated absurdly self-evident claims in newer formats.
Firmly in the latter group was the work of William Anastasi and Yoko Ono, both of whom use what was once state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to train the viewer's eye on overlooked portions of the museum's exhibition space. Anastasi's work, portentously titled Free Will, fixedly examines the right-angled corner between the floor and the wall; partly as an examination of physical space and the "conventions of art presentation," and partly, the exhibition's wall text declares, as a comment on the political dead end of the Vietnam War. Yoko Ono, long a parody of her own vacuous artistic radicalness, goes Anastasi one better. Placing a camera on the roof of the museum to beam back footage of an empty sky to a waiting monitor, the Whitney presents Ono's one-note, astoundingly literal work of 1966 as a "rupturing of the gallery's boundary." It was apparently Ono's first and only piece of video art. Thank heaven for small miracles.
But there are works in "Into the Light" whose recreation we should be sincerely thankful for, particularly as some of these have not been seen since their initial showings. Certainly the best way to enjoy this often didactic exhibition is to move up through the order of installation-sized rooms to the velvet-curtained entrance sheltering Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone. Inside the pitch-black space are contained a smoke machine, a 16-mm film projector and a slim pencil of light emanating from its lens, which, over a period of 30 minutes, describes a circle on the opposite wall and a perfect cone in the mist-filled air. Worth 100 obtuse, text-rich attempts at turning the gallery's "actual space into a perceptual field," McCall's work performs the elusive task of alchemically transforming the projector's beam into a sculptural form. The experience of it is like seeing your first rainbow in a lawn sprinkler: you can stand inside it, lie under it, look into it and even walk through it. Emerging on the other side of this eye-bending, mind-expanding work is to realize the value of superb art emanating from a single, perfectly contained idea.
Another work certainly worth the museum entrance fee is Simone Forti's Striding Crawling, a holographic cylinder whose ghostly, shimmering sequence is activated by the viewer's movement around its base. Balanced on three bricks and lit from beneath by a simple candle, Forti's work combines advanced technology (the 70s saw the emergence of holography as a new medium) with ancient elements (fire, clay bricks, shadows) to create an altar-like piece that compels the viewer to circle around it ritualistically. A third artwork that communicates volumes with a direct, pared-down economy is Dennis Oppenheim's film installation Echo. Consisting of four wall-sized film projections continually looping a giant version of the artist's hand striking at the gallery wall, Echo reduces the artist's gesture and body to its most elemental force: a dumb, self-referential but powerful physicality.
Bill Viola, a technological pioneer in his own right and a generation or so younger than most of the artists in "Into the Light," once chastised fellow artists with a simple, mostly correct observation about the nature of moving image art: "The technology is far ahead of the people using it." That observation in our age of laptop and palmtop computers, MP3 files, digital cameras, video camcorders and the Web still proves correct. If "Into the Light" teaches us anything, it is that time provides a built-in quality thresher for works that engage unstable, endlessly proliferating technologies. The experiments of a period of experimentation, any such period of experimentation, are likely to look like that, mere experiments, 25 years hence. The new medium's few breakthroughs, on the other hand, will remain.
"Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977," through Jan. 27 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. (75th St.), 570-3676.
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