19 Pioneering Visual Artists Step “Into the Light” at the Whitney

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

am a camera with its shutter wide open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,"
Christopher Isherwood wrote in the opening lines of the Berlin Stories.
Penned in 1930, Isherwood’s dispassionate description of himself reflected
the then common view of the photographic camera as the ultimate objective observer,
while suggesting, in the words of contemporary video artist Paul Pfeiffer, that
"like a guilty wish or an unconscious desire, technology is already deep
inside of you."

Though more
than 70 years separate the words of these two artists, an event nearly equidistant
in time from both Isherwood’s Weimar Germany and Pfeiffer’s 21st-century
New York brings them together into a single continuum: the invention and introduction
of Sony’s cheap, portable video camera in 1965. Picked up by artists like
Frank Gillette, Peter Campus and Nam June Paik–who, after recording images
with the new camera, showed the world’s first art video hours later at
Greenwich Village’s Cafe à Go Go–the Sony Portapak democratized
the use of the moving image by visual artists. Without it, it is unlikely that
the early artistic experiments in film and video now on exhibit at the Whitney
Museum of American Art would find anything akin to a substantial echo today.

the first exhibition of its kind seriously to examine the young-ish history
of the moving image in the visual arts, the Whitney’s "Into the Light:
The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977" charts the baby steps of
moving pictures as interpreted by 19 pioneering visual artists–among them
Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol–through a handful
of different media. Made up of films, slides, videos and holographic and photographic
projections, the poetically titled "Into the Light" delves into the
work of largely unsung precursors of today’s ubiquitous artist videos and
DVDs. If you’ve ever wondered how those banks of monitors, wall-sized projections
and flat screens made it into blockbuster exhibitions, museums and galleries,
this exhibit might give you something of an idea.

curator of film and video, Chrissie Iles, places the exhibition’s focus
squarely on the first generation of experimental artists to engage in art’s
initial phase of moving image r&d. Coming rather late to the practice (the
world’s first film was, after all, screened by the Lumière brothers
in Paris in 1895), the visual artists of the 60s and 70s approached moving images
squarely within the narrow strictures of the age’s hermetic art and theory.
Minimalism and conceptualism, like fringed jackets and Frank Zappa, were all
the rage then. Process art, performance, happenings and other "de-centered"
artistic practices banished notions of "nature" and "objecthood"
for investigations conducted within a misty, pseudo-scientific realm. In the
words of artist Paul Sharits, the prevailing impulses of the age’s vanguardist
culture and artmaking took on a peculiarly groovy, laboratory-like veneer: "investigation,
measurement, documentation, methodology as subject matter, art as research."

Of course,
the problem with many conceptual-minded, postminimal artists, then as now, is
that like latter-day Christopher Columbuses they tend to "discover"
new continents in other people’s backyards. Though early video artists
like Paik, La Monte Young and Steina Vasulka pioneered the use of video and
electronic music, and others, like the collective Videofreex, promoted alternative
television programming, many of the first artists to use moving images either
borrowed liberally from commercial films by narrative auteurs like Bertolucci
and Hitchcock or simply restated absurdly self-evident claims in newer formats.

Firmly in
the latter group was the work of William Anastasi and Yoko Ono, both of whom
use what was once state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to train the viewer’s
eye on overlooked portions of the museum’s exhibition space. Anastasi’s
work, portentously titled Free Will, fixedly examines the right-angled
corner between the floor and the wall; partly as an examination of physical
space and the "conventions of art presentation," and partly, the exhibition’s
wall text declares, as a comment on the political dead end of the Vietnam War.
Yoko Ono, long a parody of her own vacuous artistic radicalness, goes Anastasi
one better. Placing a camera on the roof of the museum to beam back footage
of an empty sky to a waiting monitor, the Whitney presents Ono’s one-note,
astoundingly literal work of 1966 as a "rupturing of the gallery’s
boundary." It was apparently Ono’s first and only piece of video art.
Thank heaven for small miracles.

But there
are works in "Into the Light" whose recreation we should be sincerely
thankful for, particularly as some of these have not been seen since their initial
showings. Certainly the best way to enjoy this often didactic exhibition is
to move up through the order of installation-sized rooms to the velvet-curtained
entrance sheltering Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone. Inside
the pitch-black space are contained a smoke machine, a 16-mm film projector
and a slim pencil of light emanating from its lens, which, over a period of
30 minutes, describes a circle on the opposite wall and a perfect cone in the
mist-filled air. Worth 100 obtuse, text-rich attempts at turning the gallery’s
"actual space into a perceptual field," McCall’s work performs
the elusive task of alchemically transforming the projector’s beam into
a sculptural form. The experience of it is like seeing your first rainbow in
a lawn sprinkler: you can stand inside it, lie under it, look into it and even
walk through it. Emerging on the other side of this eye-bending, mind-expanding
work is to realize the value of superb art emanating from a single, perfectly
contained idea.

work certainly worth the museum entrance fee is Simone Forti’s Striding
, a holographic cylinder whose ghostly, shimmering sequence is activated
by the viewer’s movement around its base. Balanced on three bricks and
lit from beneath by a simple candle, Forti’s work combines advanced technology
(the 70s saw the emergence of holography as a new medium) with ancient elements
(fire, clay bricks, shadows) to create an altar-like piece that compels the
viewer to circle around it ritualistically. A third artwork that communicates
volumes with a direct, pared-down economy is Dennis Oppenheim’s film installation
Echo. Consisting of four wall-sized film projections continually looping
a giant version of the artist’s hand striking at the gallery wall, Echo
reduces the artist’s gesture and body to its most elemental force: a dumb,
self-referential but powerful physicality.

Bill Viola,
a technological pioneer in his own right and a generation or so younger than
most of the artists in "Into the Light," once chastised fellow artists
with a simple, mostly correct observation about the nature of moving image art:
"The technology is far ahead of the people using it." That observation
in our age of laptop and palmtop computers, MP3 files, digital cameras, video
camcorders and the Web still proves correct. If "Into the Light" teaches
us anything, it is that time provides a built-in quality thresher for works
that engage unstable, endlessly proliferating technologies. The experiments
of a period of experimentation, any such period of experimentation, are likely
to look like that, mere experiments, 25 years hence. The new medium’s few
breakthroughs, on the other hand, will remain.

the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964-1977," through Jan.
27 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. (75th St.), 570-3676.