Clare Langan: Too Dark for Night

at Vedanta, through April 28

Jan Estep

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through April 28

Jason Salavon

at Peter Miller, through April 28

By Fred Camper

The single-monitor video installation has always puzzled me. There’s usually no indication of the video’s length, when it started, or when it will start again. Often one has to view it standing up. Wouldn’t it be better to watch it from one’s favorite chair at home?

But much of the best video art is presented in a context that can’t be duplicated at home. Often the monitor is part of an installation, sometimes there’s related work in other media in the show, and even when the work is shown alone, it’s often in a room designed to the artist’s specifications. And artists who integrate video with other elements are generally less concerned with the modernist idea of being true to one’s materials than they are with their overall concept.

Clare Langan’s Too Dark for Night, at Vedanta, has two components: an eerie ten-minute video projected in a darkened room and 12 stills from it hanging in a bright gallery. Langan, who lives in Dublin, shot the video on 16-millimeter film in Namibia; it begins with images of a massive desert and a tiny figure dwarfed by the dunes as the wind wails on the sound track. Eventually the figure reaches the ruins of a building. Looking from one room into another, one sees a sea of sand half filling both and the doorway between them. Somehow the stills make the video seem the document of a real catastrophe, not an artist’s creation.

Too Dark for Night suggests a high-art Planet of the Apes–a civilization swallowed up by nature or destroyed by some apocalypse. Langan’s burnt brown images are often vignetted at the top or bottom, as if one were peering through a peephole. The views are so dark, grainy, and incomplete that it seems the images themselves are decaying. Yet they’re also extravagant, even sensational, especially combined with the loud, intrusive sound track. The result is a work that’s at once austere and emotionally aggressive, reminiscent of the famous video footage by a photographer walking close to Mount Saint Helens when it erupted. He captured the smoke-filled sky, then died; his camera was later found beside his body.

Jan Estep’s exhibit at Bodybuilder and Sportsman consists of two videos, a cut-paper work, and a photo diptych; measured and cool, it’s the opposite of Langan’s in tone. And her videos are not projected but displayed on small monitors, placed near her other work. Yet both artists are skeptical about the power of industrial civilization in the face of nature.

The two photos show a large greenhouse with Estep in one of them, contrasting with the other three pieces, which offer antiheroic perspectives on antarctic exploration. One two-minute video, Terra Incognita, simply presents five Latin names for Antarctica culled from old maps together with their translations, from “the southern land unknown” to “the southern land recently discovered but not yet fully known.” The text might be titles introducing images, but once it becomes clear there are no images, one is forced to imagine the unseen continent.

The other video, Search Routes, lasts eight minutes and shows almost identical images of a ship’s prow slicing through ice from the film 90º South, about a Robert Falcon Scott expedition; Estep suggests the boredom and futility common in polar exploration (many antarctic expeditions never even reached land). Scrolling across the screen are the names of ships involved in major explorations; these range from the resolute (Endurance) to the fanciful (Pourquoi Pas?). The names invoke a history the images can’t provide–that ultimately no image could provide. Together the videos represent gently ironic essays on the limits of language and knowledge: parts of the world will always remain “not fully known.”

Estep–a Chicago art critic and an editor at the New Art Examiner–holds a PhD in philosophy (her dissertation addressed “the idea of self-consciousness in Kant, Hegel, and Lacan”). Her antarctic project (she’s made many pieces in different media that are not in this show) reflects an interest in “making the metaphorical leap to all those things that are inaccessible inside me, inside us.”

The cut-paper work–a relief map of the continent, Topo Antarctica–hangs between the two videos. It’s done all in white and thus lacks the assertiveness of most relief maps. With the two sparse videos, shown on white monitors, it makes a joke on snow, of course. These purposely modest pieces may also be poking fun at the male ethos of heroic exploration; even the repeated phallic images of the ship’s prow become almost meditative. Distanced and antisensational, Estep’s images leave a lot of space for the viewer’s own thoughts.

Jason Salavon, one of Chicago’s strongest young artists, is showing 2 videos and 11 digital prints at Peter Miller, each creating a digital mapping of images or data. One series of prints is based on domestic shoe-production figures, but my favorite piece is a video projection: The Top 25 Grossing Films of All Time, 2X2 converts those films into a minimalist grid of 100 solid-colored boxes, wryly commenting on the Hollywood blockbuster.

Using a list he found on the Internet Movie Database, Salavon obtained videos of the 25 films, digitized them, then converted each into a digital abstraction–a two-by-two grid in which the color in each quadrant is an average of the colors in that quadrant in the film. His video consists of a single image including all 25 films digitized, from number 1 (Titanic) to number 25 (The Matrix) lined up left to right and top to bottom; the sound track is a mix of the 25 tracks. The video is always projected, but since some movies end earlier than others, Salavon has always ended the showing before the 194 minutes of Titanic have elapsed, at which point the rest of the grid would be dark. At Peter Miller he’s showing the first 140 minutes, at the end of which 21 films have disappeared; well before that, the screen is a mix of light and dark. No one is expected to view the whole thing, Salavon says, suggesting that perhaps five minutes would be appropriate.

Salavon’s intentionally absurd mappings often make the data less comprehensible rather than more. Reflecting the arbitrariness of all human endeavors, including generating data, he converts information into imagery that recalls minimal art, commenting on its ethos. High minimalism, as it might be called in its initial 1960s phase, was often considered dry and conceptual but in actuality continued the searchings of earlier abstract artists–Mondrian, Malevich, Rothko, Newman–for the inner truths of the cosmos or of consciousness. The goal was artistic perfection leading to human enlightenment. Salavon’s 25-movie, 100-square grid may resemble a minimalist work, but the color changes are pointedly random and unaesthetic–which is right for the subject, since most Hollywood films are incoherent in pure rhythmic terms, their structures dictated by the narrative.

In conventional terms Salavon’s piece is a “bad” abstract film or “bad” minimal art. But his work illuminates something fundamental about Hollywood features: every unmotivated color change, every failed attempt to find a rhythm, reminds us that these things are often unmotivated except by the narrative. Overall the grid reminds us of how distant popular culture–and, one might argue, daily life–is from the underlying perfection of the world that Mondrian hypothesized.