It is the centre of art-world fashion. It is usually bad, boring and pretentious. So what is it that video art is trying to do that television can't do better?by Ben Lewis / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
There is nowadays only one kind of artist who can obtain a solo show at a leading public art gallery with only seven works to his or her name while still less than 30 years of age. A video artist. Evidence of this is the show that Nick Relph (26) and Oliver Payne (28) are enjoying for a month at the Serpentine Gallery. Both the Haunch of Venison and White Cube galleries are also exhibiting video art. It is the drug of choice among the young of the art world. But it is easy to overdose on this powerful tranquiliser and lapse into a catatonic state. This year’s Venice biennale was swamped with overhead projectors and wobbly blown-up DV images. Why is there so much video art? It occasionally has something to do with the talent of the artists, though not often enough to measure scientifically. But most of the time it has to do with the fact that curators are more naive when it comes to video than other mediums. And that is because art theory is particularly accommodating towards video art. Payne and Relph’s supporters will tell you that they are the most significant young British artists to have emerged since the Britart phenomenon. They produce poetic short films which, ten years ago, might have had a slot late at night on Channel 4. These have very charitably been described as low-budget art-pop videos. The films last ten or 20 minutes, have a rhythmic soundtrack, abstract patterns, bands playing, and people dancing. They include a voiceover, or subtitles, usually discussing the corporate commercialisation of youth culture. These appear to be the hackneyed musings of any group of twentysomethings enjoying a spliff after a rave. But curators of the Serpentine and other influential gallerists take a different view. For them, the wobbly camera and out-of-focus shots reference the aesthetic of consumer video, while the beautiful patterns of London’s blurred lights and reflections in puddles are a modern-day version of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. The zany sense of humour of this duo produces offbeat dada collages of modern icons—a girl giving two fingers against a background of baked beans, or two guys dressed in Scream masks and mobile phone suits. It is significant, the exhibition catalogue will tell you, that Payne and Relph’s camera moves at a snail’s pace (in and out of focus because it is unfortunately, or perhaps deliberately, on auto-focus) over the walls of a public lavatory, because they are examining this significant public space. One of the reasons curators have leapt on Payne and Relph is that their video art eschews the minimalist tendencies that have preoccupied most practitioners. Over at the Haunch of Venison is an example of this older and much dryer tradition. Diana Thater’s beautiful installations of flat screens full of butterflies are about just that—the technological representation of sublime nature. An ordinary member of the television-viewing public might point out that this is a concept that can be enjoyed at home watching any nature documentary (which, in addition, will have other qualities, such as narrative and shot changes). But in my experience, few people from the art world watch television or go to the cinema, and that is the real problem with video art. Anyone familiar with recent art theory would tell you firmly that what Thater does is map the strategies of minimalist artists like Sol Le Witt and Carl Andre on to video. She is looking for the simplest properties of the medium, and the reproduction of those properties itself creates beauty. After all, no one today (except Brian Sewell) would dismiss Andre’s bricks with the thought that you can go and look at a line of bricks anywhere. Thater’s work illustrates the gulf, at its widest point, between those who read art theory and those who watch television. In their defence, video artists and their supporters can argue that they use the popular medium of television in clever ways that are impossible in the commercialised, narrative-driven moving-image worlds of programmes, ads and films. This can be true, as the fabulous work by Candice Breitz, now on show at the White Cube, proves. Breitz is only 33—but she has produced a minor masterpiece in two fearless works called Mother and Father. In each installation a semi-circle of eight screens faces the viewer. On each, a famous Hollywood actor repeats different lines from Hollywood films which reveal the uniformity of Hollywood’s parental archetypes. The work is simple, yet full of brilliant detail. There are superbly orchestrated crescendos of female anger and neuroses as Susan Sarandon jerks her head in circles, Meryl Streep recoils at the kitchen table and Julia Roberts’s mouth crumples with sadness. The background around each actor has been meticulously blacked out, making the work precise and iconic. There is a loose but enthralling narrative about love, marriage, divorce and custody battles. What makes Breitz’s art so successful is not just that it is about cinema, nor that it does things that television and cinema cannot, but that it competes with these worlds of the popular moving image, offering similar levels of emotion, surprise, impact and revelation. Best of all, I am told that the artist did not secure the rights to the films or the actors’ appearances, making this a breach of copyright flagrant enough to make a bootlegging Asian gangster blush.