BY Mark Godfrey in Reviews | 10 SEP 00
Featured in
Issue 54

Video Work

BY Mark Godfrey in Reviews | 10 SEP 00

'Video Work' was a modest title for this exhibition, which was expansively installed over five floors of a vacant West End building. Although three works were shown on regular DVD or VHS monitors, the show also included projections onto various sized screens, or the uneven surface of the walls. Some rooms felt cinematic: Rodney Graham's Vexation Island (1998) was shown with a row of seats, and a surround system that made it seem as if the crashing waves were spilling over you. Elsewhere, only the drone of film passing through projectors disturbed the silence. It was a spectacle of diversity, arranged intelligently to allow each piece, whatever its scale, to command its own space. Despite technical variety, several currents emerged between adjacent works and those on different floors. Many pieces, for example, investigated the legacy of painting from which video practice departed.

Mat Collishaw's Blind Date (2000) uses film to explore Walter Benjamin's ideas about the dissolution of the aura of a work of art in the age of reproduction. Igor and Svetlana Kopystianskys' Fog (1999-2000) positioned viewers between two wall-length screens which looked like shifting colour fields, while in Marijke van Warmedam's Skytypers (1997), aeroplanes leave smoke trails against the sky which recall 1950s gestural paint strokes against a canvas. Ceal Floyer's Ink on Paper (1999) depicts the artist holding a pen, and as its pigment seeps out onto the paper, the slowly widening circle looks like a Noland target. Although invoking painting, Floyer's video touched on the repression of temporality inherent in Modernist criticism, but by representing duration - the condition of video - her film, nonetheless, embodies certain Modernist tenets. Minimalism presaged video's concerns with time, and in Jonathan Monk's While Witt 100 Cubes Cantz/slow slow quick quick slow/front to back back to front/on its side (2000) - images of Sol LeWitt's book transferred onto film frames - all sense of the rational artist disappeared in the convulsive repetition of the images.

Monk's deployment of analogue equipment signals another Modernist strategy: employing the medium as the subject. On the second and third floors, different works using digital technology, explored the terrain of the loop. Over four screens, Pierre Bismuth's short film Alternance (1999) depicted people walking past a Metro stop. Each consecutive version contained slight variations, and to register them you were forced to refer to the neighbouring screens and to try and remember what you had just seen. Watching the film was like playing a game, although after Vexation Island, it was the viewer who was beginning to feel toyed with. The unnerving film depicts a sailor's dream, which is mirrored in the 'real world' when he awakes. Graham not only plays with the illusion of cinematic narrative, but ensnares the viewer in the sailor's trap, which, like Sisyphus' task, must go on forever. Francis Alÿs, however, seduces spectators with circular structures. In Cuentos Patria (Patriotic Tales, 1997), a ring of sheep trot around the flagpole in Mexico City's central square. As the stuttering rhythms of the animal parade move out of synch with a tolling bell, the circle gradually closes.

Douglas Gordon's Film Noir (1995) makes further use of repetition. A fly's ceaseless twitching appears to wither its energy, pushing it towards death. Paul McCarthy's Rocky (1976) makes literal the structure of the death drive, as the grunting and masked artist pounds himself to exhaustion. These works indicate that video's concerns with repetitive structures are closely related to its investigations of the body and questions of spectatorship. McCarthy's film is a good example of early video art, when artists seemed preoccupied with investigating a logic of absence - with filmed performance, the audience is absent to the performer, and the artist absent for the audience. McCarthy recognises this gulf by adopting a dual role which merges both the vulnerability of the performer and the violence of the witness. Vanessa Beecroft bridges the gulf: the half-naked girl in Performance (1997) stares directly at the camera to indict those - in another place and time - staring at the screen.

On the top floor, Simon Patterson chose not to show moving pictures at all, but to create them. His installation Enter the Dragon (1999), consisted of a loft space lined with zig-zagging mirrors, over which played the soundtrack to the 1973 film of the same name. As viewers negotiated giant letters which spelt out Bruce Lee, their reflections bounced over the walls: at last, at the top of the building, they had become the star of the show.

Mark Godfrey is a curator and art historian based in London, UK. He recently co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader (2021) with Allie Biswas, and co-curated ‘Laura Owens and Vincent van Gogh’ at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France.