New Video, New Europe

at the Renaissance Society, through February 22

Timothy Hutchings: The Arsenal at Danzig and Other Views

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through February 28

Shannon Wright

at Gardenfresh, through February 7

Most video art I’ve seen in recent years falls into one of three categories. The least successful works tend to use video as if it were film–video images generally lack film’s resolution and presence. Other works lie in the best modernist tradition, exploiting the medium’s unique qualities–for example, the dim, low-contrast projection or the ease with which the image can be manipulated. The third category is made up of videos dominated by the subject or concept.

The strengths and weaknesses of all three categories are visible in 49 videos at the Renaissance Society, created by 40 artists from 16 eastern European countries from Finland to Moldova. In Survived ‘n’ Lived Another Day, Bosnian Alma Becirovic interviews a woman whose job is searching for land mines. This video communicates an important and moving story, but Becirovic’s landscape images–the misty shots with which it opens, for example–cry out for the sensuality of film.

Another Bosnian, Muhidin Tvico, belongs to the second category: he collages two kinds of images in Vm. Inserting the round glass window of a washing machine, complete with tumbling clothes, into the center of news footage that includes displaced people and diplomats meeting, he creates a visual pun on ethnic cleansing. Even more effective is the brutal way the machine’s circle ruptures the images.

Adrian Paci’s Albanian Stories would work equally well on film or witnessed in person: a charming three-year-old girl tells an improvised fairy tale. The story is a bit hard to follow, but when she starts referring to Italy–she and her father are refugees from Kosovo–and international forces, the threat to their safety emerges in a way that’s all the more affecting because she seems unaware of the extent to which her innocence has been compromised. An untitled video by Croatian Alen Floricic relies on its concept for impact. It shows the artist seated poker-faced next to a Christmas tree whose lights blink in sync with a dumb little melody, foregrounding the moronic aspects of mass culture even as the synchronization of lights and music is weirdly appealing.

Some works use video technology for psychological ends. Estonians Killu Sukmit and Mari Laanemets set a female figure against the backdrop of a building facade in Lucy. The way her body position slowly changes and the way her hair seems swept back reinforces the illusion that she’s falling, perhaps having jumped. However, that illusion is disrupted by the way the background is looped, so that we see her pass the same floors again and again. Falling is presented as an unbreakable cyclical trap, a trap of the mind rather than a real-life event.

I especially liked another Estonian piece, Kai Kaljo’s Love Letter to Myself, for its gentle, tentative treatment of the human figure. Though its theme–the artist meditates on the insubstantiality of her own image–is rather common, the dimness of video light works perfectly to render the title half ironic. We see the pale walls of a studio, with light cast through windows on the rear wall, and on a blank canvas in the foreground more window shapes plus what we assume is Kaljo’s own shadow. Nothing much happens as we listen to a very low-fi version of Bob Dylan’s arguably misogynist “Just Like a Woman.” Is the artist unable to paint–has she broken “just like a little girl”? Or has she decided that natural light and shadows–the pale wall and canvas almost meld–captured on video are more appealing than marks made with oils?

Timothy Hutchings’s eight-minute video The Arsenal at Danzig and Other Views at Bodybuilder and Sportsman is a fine example of a boundary-defying work: Hutchings uses video not as if it were film but to imitate the worn look of old films. We see a formally attired man–the artist himself–as a tourist in various grand spaces: standing in front of a spectacular Russian church, visiting an ornate, high-ceilinged room, waving to the camera in front of the Arsenal in Danzig. There are splotches on the dark leader sections and filmlike scratches elsewhere, the “sound track” consists of the noise of a movie projector, and scenes are tinted slightly in the manner of silent films. The conceit is that we’re watching the home movies of an affluent tourist from the early part of the 20th century.

But no one is trying to fool anyone into thinking this is actually a film: the video projector is plainly visible in the gallery. Indeed, all the backgrounds are still photographs–any movement we see, such as a boat on the water, is the result of Hutchings’s computer animation of elements in the still. The only videotaped feature is the image of Hutchings. This piece evokes nostalgia on several levels–nostalgia for the age of the grand tour, for home movies, for the dying use of celluloid. (The projector sound is a sound track, and the filmic scratches and splotches were added digitally.) This “film” also appears to jump in the gate more than once, always in the same places on the video–it’s as if the ephemeral act of film projection had been made timeless, further heightening Hutchings’s conflation of nostalgia for celluloid and nostalgia for a time and place.

Hutchings–who was born in Imperial, Missouri, in 1974–now lives in Brooklyn and works in a variety of media; Dada and Fluxus are among his important influences. A European tour in 1997 helped inspire this piece: he was impressed by whole neighborhoods of Warsaw that had been rebuilt from the rubble after World War II. All the monuments shown are said to have been eradicated in the world wars, thus making Hutchings a tourist in places he–and we–can never see in the flesh.

A half-dozen critics of Hutchings’s work have repeated the information that the buildings in The Arsenal at Danzig and Other Views have been “destroyed,” “lost,” “erased.” But I was in Danzig (now known as Gdansk) six weeks ago, and Hutchings’s waterfront view of the Zuraw–which once housed the largest shipping crane in medieval Europe–can still be seen today. Some of the buildings in that view were destroyed and rebuilt, but the Zuraw was left standing at the end of World War II (though its interior was burnt out). It was disconcerting to move from imagining buildings I assumed had been destroyed to reliving memories of a spectacular structure that’s much more interesting in reality than either the pale image Hutchings offers or the misinformed nostalgia he tries to evoke.

Shannon Wright’s three videos at Gardenfresh (an exhibit that includes a related sculpture) elude categories and manage to be conceptually interesting and visually pleasurable. Each video is less than a minute long and shows mostly an animated line drawing of a rather simple, slightly goofy machine; two of the three seem to control a person’s movements. Ride shows a horse walking in a circle, powering a gear that makes a saddle go up and down. In Perfect Form a woman pats her head and rubs her stomach, each arm driven by a wheel. And in Lesson a man drums a simple rhythm on a table, his arms powered by a wheel, in sync with the sound track.

Wright was born in Baton Rouge in 1969 and lived in Chicago for a decade starting in 1992 (she has a 1994 MFA from the School of the Art Institute); she now lives in San Jose, California. Her mature work began with devices she made to be used in her performances; her first such piece was inspired by a 1920s Red Cross swimming manual: she hung herself in a harness and enacted different strokes. Soon she was making work influenced by Etienne-Jules Marey’s devices for measuring animal movement and Frank Gilbreth’s time-and-motion studies (he photographed the hand motions of production-line workers to improve their efficiency). Perfect Form and Lesson seem driven by the Gilbreth model, as humans are reduced to near automatons endlessly repeating tasks controlled by a machine. (Wright says she plans to build full-size mechanisms based on these videos.)

These simple Flash animations, at least in their projected form, have a pixel-by-pixel firmness–lacking in CRT video–that references the solidity of machines. Yet what makes the videos so successful is their lyrical effect, which comes from the charm of the drawings, the smooth functioning of the mechanisms, and Wright’s “editing.” Each work is broken down into a variety of shots (largely the contribution of Frank Pichel, who put the videos together under Wright’s direction). These not only suggest film montage but help reveal the workings of the devices: Perfect Form (as well as Ride) includes close-ups of gears. The simplicity and perfection of Wright’s self-enclosed worlds offer an oddly cheerful view of our reduction to machines.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.