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Art Review

The Complex Art of Capturing Random Moments in 'Time'

February 17, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

"Making Time" is an exhibition with a simple premise. For contemporary film and video art, time is of the essence. Unlike static painting or sculpture, these currently fashionable mediums incorporate time into their very being. Recognizing this, some artists have made time a subject of their films or videos.

Though the premise may be simple (and familiar), the implications are not. Time is complex. Time is merely the measurable period during which an action, process or condition exists, unfolds or continues. But it can quickly turn into a murky swamp. Since time and space form a continuum, the transformation shouldn't be surprising.

At the UCLA Hammer Museum, swampiness prevails. Thirty-two disparate works by 31 artists are on view, and time is an important ingredient--even sometimes a subject--in all of them. They date from Andy Warhol's famous eight-hours-plus epic "Empire," from 1964--a cinematic paradox in which a 16-millimeter movie records Manhattan's immovable Empire State Building--to the recent proliferation of video projections in the 1990s, by artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood, Rodney Graham and Francis Alys. Overall, though, the selection seems pretty random.

In addition to a classic like "Empire," there are well-known works by such important, long-established artists as John Baldessari, Gilbert & George, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik and Steina. Works by the last two artists demonstrate the range.

Paik's "Global Groove" (1973) is a dense, rapidly edited video collage whose avalanche of imagery is the sine qua non of modern media saturation. More pictures pass before your eyes during its nearly 30 minutes than a member of any previous society could expect to see in several lifetimes.

By contrast, Steina's "Orbital Obsessions" (1975-1977) uses mechanical devices to operate the video camera according to their own robotic systems. The camera's lens gets disengaged from the human eye, to which it is usually appended.

Both video pioneers had a clear interest in creating something distinct from corporate television, which was a principal context for early video art. In fact, it might be credible to divide the video work in the show according to generation. Artists like Baldessari, Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis and Shigeko Kubota were born 10 or 20 years before television went from science-fiction fantasy to common living room furniture. Younger artists like Taylor-Wood, Darren Almond, Gary Hill and Jose Antonio Hernandez-Diez were born along with the TV phenomenon itself, or even after it had become an omnipresent feature of the contemporary landscape.

For this second group of artists, there is also the matter of precedent. If a pioneer such as Paik was in fact "the father of video art," the younger artists began their work within an existing artistic tradition, however new. Rapid changes in video technology helped fuel the medium's rise, until finally it became ubiquitous in the late 1990s.

Judging from the exhibition, which was organized as the inaugural show at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Florida (the old Lannan Museum), video has almost completely overtaken film as the medium of choice for artists interested in issues related to time. Only six films are being shown in this 35-year survey, and only one of those films is by a younger artist.

Dara Friedman's 12-minute "Total" (1998) turns a linear conception of time inside out, simply by running a film backward that shows the artist demolishing a cheap hotel room. Gleefully smashed furniture flies back together to become whole, but a viewer can't quite figure out what's happening until somewhere in the middle of the film. A movie's typical narrative sequence--where the beginning, middle and end provide an introduction, conflict and resolution--gets shuffled like a deck of cards.

Connections can certainly be drawn between some recent videos and earlier films (and even earlier art). Perhaps the clearest example is "Zocalo" (1999), by Francis Alys. A stationary camera has been trained on the main plaza in Mexico City, which is dominated by a huge flagpole and an enormous national flag. The relentless bustle of the city goes on around the margins, recalling the atomized urban vistas of French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, while pedestrians line up along the ramrod-straight shadow of the flagpole, searching for a spot sheltered from the blazing sun. The national flagpole becomes a kind of urban sundial in Alys' 12-hour video. While recording time's passage in the heart of the city, its wry relationship to Warhol's urban epic about the Empire State Building is inescapable. Warhol's heroic phallus becomes Alys' socialized state.

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