Timothy Martin

Making an original video artwork must be one of the most difficult tasks for a contemporary artist. Our culture is saturated with highly stylized, technically masterful video images, from the evening news to television commercials to music videos. Most video artists whose work I’ve seen fall into one of two traps: they try, and fail, to duplicate the look of multimillion-dollar spectacles, or they make videos about the inherent artificiality of video images, thereby pulling the rug out from under their own feet.

Timothy Martin, on the other hand, has found a unique voice as a video artist, displaying intelligence, insight, and great humor and subtlety. Martin’s work at once acknowledges and exploits the limitations of his medium. The lighting is never quite right, the sound is usually a bit funky, and the camera does not always remain steady, but such “mistakes” are integrated with his subject matter–typically “candid, personal” moments of deadpan “confession.” Martin seems to use video because it allows a certain intimacy that might be sacrificed, in live performance, to the demands of theatricality.

So it is with his newest work, Hunter, Warrior, Shaman. This piece actually consists of three pieces: two videos, Shaman and Hunter (which both employ the delightful monologuist Mark Roth), and a handmade book entitled Warrior. Taken as a whole, these three pieces seem to examine the dichotomy between nature and culture, suggesting that the standardizing norms of culture supplant nature’s spontaneity, creating the monomaniacal figures of the hunter and the warrior, who try to hunt down or suppress nature. The shaman, however, is a healing figure, making sense of human experience through the telling of stories, thereby revealing (human) nature through culture.

But Martin’s strategy is hardly clear-cut, much to his credit. Like all good work, his reverberates around particular images without ever draining those images of their complexity and mystery. His work can be appreciated on a variety of levels. Shaman, which dynamically investigates the process of understanding experience through story telling, is also one of the funniest pieces of television you will ever see.

Shaman has a straightforward structure. Two men (Martin and Roth), always individually filmed, share with us observations about contemporary life, “true” stories of famous historical figures, and memories from their childhoods. Roth begins the video by telling us the story (which he informs us we already know) of the aged James Joyce dictating Finnegans Wake to Samuel Beckett. Joyce is in the middle of dictating a sentence when someone knocks on the door, and Joyce says, “Come in.” Beckett asks Joyce if he wants “come in” included in the text. Of course Joyce says yes, since the sentence is so honest and spontaneous. But the curious part of the story, Roth concludes, is that nowhere in Finnegans Wake is the sentence “Come in” to be found.

Clearly, the story is curious because it’s a fiction–but more delightful than the historical truth on which it rests. All of the stories told in Shaman require the same delightful suspension of disbelief. There’s the story of Roth as a child rinsing out his paintbrushes in an old Victorian bathtub in the middle of the woods, the pigment “marking the transitions between the woods, the tub, and [his] body.” There’s the story of Martin’s old girlfriend, the floor of her apartment an inch deep in coins, on top of which they make love. There’s the story of Roth sharing a bag of peanuts with Albert Einstein on a park bench one Sunday afternoon.

Martin keeps Shaman technically simple. Each anecdote is told in a single, static shot. But he places himself and Roth in wholly personal environments: sitting on the floor in front of the radiator, in a rocking chair, at the kitchen table. But these sets are not sentimental or “homey.” Rather they are comfortable yet stark. Outside the kitchen window, for example, is a huge fence topped with enormous rolls of barbed wire.

Still, Martin’s main concern is not the visual image on the screen but rather the remembered image of the story, and the process by which memory retains that image. This idea is beautifully realized in the final section of the tape, in which both Martin and Roth recount stories of meeting a man in a New York coffee shop who constantly inserts an empty hypodermic needle into his arm in an attempt to circumvent his drug addiction. Each storyteller makes sense of the encounter in a different way. For Martin, the story is about trying to understand another person. His focus is always on the man with the needle. For Roth, the story is something of a footnote to a larger story he wants to tell about creating a map of New York based on the locations of coffeehouses. Each storyteller latches onto particular objects in the coffeehouse–the bagels, the waitress, the coffee–and uses them as points in the constellation that makes up his story, thereby creating meaning out of lived experience.

Hunter, the second video, is a much darker and more ambiguous work, shot primarily in the “through the eyes of the narrator” style of dramatic re-creation. Yet Martin’s narrator is silent, and the style of filming suggests that he is not “looking” through anyone’s eyes but instead through an object–the camera–held as he passes through the film. The camera jiggles with each step the operator takes, the image becoming almost unintelligible when he begins frantically running through a cornfield. The camera–or its operator–acts as passive observer, sitting in a car and recording houses as they pass by, documenting people walking casually in the Loop while ferocious gunfire is heard in the background. The camera-operator moves from the country to the city–metaphorically from nature to culture–finally arriving in front of a thoroughly boorish male fairly drowning in testosterone who brags about his conquest of the “bitch” with the “big tits.”

This reprehensible man stands at the end point of our journey, embodying perhaps the end product of our patriarchal culture. Full of abject terror, the camera-operator runs frantically away, ending up on the roof of a building at night, staring uncomprehendingly at the fury of the surrounding activity: the noise and lights of the el and the busy streets. It is as if the camera-operator, which throughout the video has been the hunter in search of manifestations of American culture, suddenly finds itself hunted by the images it finds.

The subtle strategy employed in Hunter makes the few cliched moments all the more unsuccessful. For example, after watching houses float by, oddly distorted and sepia-tinted, we hear a recording of an announcer reminding us of when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The connection between image and text is too obvious, disappointingly literal.

Copies of Warrior, a colorfully painted book, were handed out to us instead of programs. This highly sensual object, covered with hand-decorated sections of canvas, is something of a culmination of the ideas in the videos, an assemblage of cultural regimentation: academic treatises on “the discovery of death,” charts and maps defining the earth’s resources, photographs of third-world wage laborers, and, most intriguing of all, a series of military travel orders, dictating where, when, and by what means an officer is allowed to travel. The book is powerfully sad, graphically illustrating the inhuman quality of human culture. Included are several xeroxes of telegrams; one of them coolly states: “Just heard the terrible news. Deepest sympathy. Ethel Wakefield.” Culture excuses the human being from any intimate emotional display.

Warrior, like Shaman and Hunter, is ripe for further exploration and contemplation. Martin’s work draws no conclusions but points you in the direction of several possible conclusions, so that an evening of his work is thoroughly invigorating and refreshing.