The Viewing Room Essay

11/13/1999 - 12/18/1999

The Viewing Room

Raechell Smith

The final decades of the twentieth century have witnessed an explosion of diverse media and the prescient rise, in particular, of video, performance, and installation art. Since the emergence of the first portable movie cameras in the 1960s, artists have engaged in persistent rituals of experimentation with the medium of video; exploring, merging and creating their own styles and methods of making, editing, and presenting.

Along with the establishment of a distinct niche for video in contemporary art, this era has also seen the dominant rise of electronic mass media and a society fully engaged in the subsequent feast laid for information and image consumption. In the latter part of this century, video art and other electronic media, with the accompanying discourse, have taken over where the much beleaguered debate over the photographic medium left off in the last century.  In both cases, it is the dangerously close relationship to mass media that threatens eradication of that fine line separating high from low, bringing art and popular culture into a closer, more ambiguous union. In considering video art at the close of the twentieth century we are reminded, once again, of the caution the precedes acceptance of new technologies and of the subtle, inherent tension that generally always exists between newer and more established art forms.

Informed by art and non-art sources alike, today’s generation of video artists is bearing thoughtful witness to a multifaceted lineage of precursors, and bridging the increasingly fluid gap between art and popular culture. In The Viewing Room, we see artists actively mining sources that include the groundbreaking feminist and performance art of the 1970s and 1980s, television documentary styles that rely on observation, interview, and narrative and visual forms of storytelling, and the emergent genre of music television that has spread, rapidly and globally, to define a whole generation, its perceptions and its newly evolving world view.

On one level, The Viewing Room is an investigation of video’s lure to artists involved in creating and participating in a particular discourse on modern life. As a medium for artistic expression, video lends itself well to a direct and engaging transmission of experiences and actions. As a messenger of narrative and content, video art is perhaps the most suitable medium for conveying the psychology of the people portrayed. Incorporating documentary and filmic approaches and employing characters both real and imagined, these artists are making art out of the private emotions and fantasies, public confessions, and personal interactions of everyday life.

Lucy Gunning’s Climbing Around My Room begins to explore notions of private space and the intimate acts that occur within such environments.Hand held, the camera pans a stark bedroom cleared of most of its furnishings and all the adorning personal possessions one imagines as it follows the figure of a woman carefully navigating the perimeter of the room, like an acrobat moving from shelf to cabinet to window ledge, without ever making contact with the floor.

Repetitive and mildly absurd, the agile and strenuous act in which the woman is engaged is more reminiscent of a childhood game than of any rational or conventional concept of how a grown woman might occupy herself during quiet moments of solitude. The humorous ritual is accompanied, as a temporal reminder, by sounds of the woman’s labored breath, an occasional passing car outside the window, and the friction between skin, fabric, and the surfaces against which she climbs and pulls her body. This idiosyncratic performance-turned-public-spectacle recalls the video and photographic documents of performances and “happenings” from the era of feminist and conceptual art when artists began to use their own bodies, real time, and space to extend the boundaries of sculpture. Climbing Around My Room serves the purpose of documenting the possible accomplishment of such a task, but, on another level, it also acts as an innocent marker of time and represents an export of the childish space within our own imaginations.

Gunning and Swiss-born Pipilotti Rist, Swiss pop-music artist turned visual artist, both rely on the physical tracing of a gesture and a theatrical suspension of reality to create images of personal, interior states. Energized by the artist’s use of music, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much is a full on glorification of contemporary music culture, fully embracing an unabashed and erotically charged music-television aesthetic. In the portrayal of complete surrender to a fantasy-like odyssey of mind and body overtaken, Rist’s strategy of imaging an otherwise invisible psychological space reveals a personal and social commentary that swiftly turns political as it swerves to encompass issues of identity, perception, and consumption. As artist and actress, Rist playfully tackles the sexualized, anonymous, and stylized image of the feminine as it is currently mediated, projected, and consumed.

With a rebellious and deftly humorous twist, Rist, the girl who hasn’t missed much of anything, turns a sexy, soft focus into a series of flashing blurs that give us quick glimpses of a provocatively clad and coquettish female lip-synching the words to a John Lennon song. Capitalizing on her ear for music, an eye for painterly moving images, slick production values and jump-cut editing, Rist hints at a kind of adolescent female assumption or mimicking of media-projected images that, all too often, inform and dictate identity and the image of self.

Growing up in England, Gillian Wearing’s fascination with the spectacle of ordinary life, fraught with a mixture of mundane and absurd moments, was inspired by “fly on the wall” documentaries like Franc Roddam and Paul Watson’s Family (1974) and Michael Apted’s Seven Up (1964) and its sequels. Wearing’s use of photography and video became a means of establishing a voice to articulate the otherwise barely recognizable moments and hidden emotions of the unlikely and forgotten few, playing with the ambiguities of truth and fiction as she analyzes societal assumptions regarding subcultures, differences in class and gender, and the expression of private, human emotions. Although Wearing uses a straightforward documentary approach in making videos, she enlists a cache of devices that govern the complexity of her works: assumed identities, masks, disguises, voice dubbing and other techniques liberate her subjects from recognition and create a space for anonymity. Ironically, these same devices can also begin to call into question matters of authenticity and the viewer’s ability to believe or not believe what is being presented.

In earlier works such as Dancing in Peckham, Wearing assumes the personae of her subjects by reenacting bizarre scenes she has witnessed unexpectedly, scenes that serve to disrupt our conventional sense of what is normal and acceptable behavior. Using her camera to record personal confessions solicited through classified advertisements and other means, Wearing continues to examine and muddle whatever distinctions we may have to separate the public from the private face.

In 2 into 1, a mother and her twin sons express their perceptions about one another through voices that are exchanged. Voice and authority are intermingled as the medium is manipulated, the power relationship we expect is upended, and familiarity becomes cause for contempt and cruelty. As a loving but insecure mother’s voice, lip-synched by her young sons, expresses alternating and conflicted states of adoration and criticism of the boys, we begin to recognize the vulnerabilities of family life and the exacting power others have to shape the way we see ourselves. Just as discomforting, there is an undermining show of disrespect as the boys’ voices describe their mother, criticize her looks and the way she dresses, and compare her behavior with that of their father. It is equally surprising that the comments are so brutally honest and that such self-directed comments can be so easily repeated without a greater show of emotion. The work reveals the essence and complexities of intimate knowing and familial interactions, and it embodies many aspects of the gender roles we begin to take on early in life. However, it is the humor expressed within the work and by the characters themselves that makes 2 into 1 so believable and so captivating.

The psychological drama of family life provides a natural setting for Wearing to probe intense emotion, conflict, and direct experience. The subtext of love and hate expressed by the mother and her sons in 2 into 1 becomes an aestheticized portrayal of a physical struggle of aggression and control between the characters of mother and daughter in Sacha and Mum.  Here, Wearing asserts more artistic control over the medium and its manipulative aspects to interweave gestures of love and violence, showing the scene forwards and backwards and manipulating the sound to make it inaudible and more ambiguous. The repetitive struggle that engages the two protagonists and the uncertainty of where it begins and where it ends seems to suggest a cycle of interaction that will continue to shift, without absolute resolution, between the two extreme emotions. Physical hostility and violence is neither refuted nor accepted by Wearing, simply presented as another compelling facet of human existence. The heightened theatricality of the unfolding drama and the critical distance Wearing maintains pushes the boundaries of tolerance in a way that is wholly different from our passive media consumption of human affairs and world events.

Throughout all of Wearing’s work there is an invitation to engage in the narrative and listen to the stories of others. She remains impassive, yet shows great empathy for her subjects, like an anthropologist’s careful and respectful observations of another culture in action. By resisting judgement and moral posturing, there is an implication that fundamental truths are being revealed, and that the possibility to learn more about others, ourselves and, ultimately, our perceptions, is always within reason. However, as with any manner of social realism, the revelations, whether they are true or false, can be confrontational and are not always easy to sit with.

For Janine Antoni, creating art is an act of  collaboration that involves her own body, engaged in performance or ritual, as a tool that interacts with other materials and leaves the memory of its gesture behind. Antoni’s poetic meditations on simple acts rely on the power of physical gesture and the body’s ability to understand through experiential connection. Despite the direct intimacy and engagement of her own body, the content of her work is rarely autobiographical or personally revealing, and yet, it is the promise of connection conveyed through experience that compels her artistic inquiry.

Ready or Not Here I Come, a collaborative project that contemplates the familiarity and relaxed condition of expectations within a close family unit, is more personally revealing than much of her well-known work. A domestic setting and the private, inhabited spaces contained within provide the context for a game of hide and seek. The seeker, who is actually Antoni’s father, moves casually about the house, looking through the eyes of the camera for his daughter while speaking in intimate and familiar tones to the young woman whose presence eludes him. The ritual is known, the participants are familiar, and the expected outcome is realized, over and over, as the hiding place is revealed so the game can begin once more.

Antoni has engaged her family in collaboration before, focusing on the evolution and slippage of identity and gender roles among intimates, and pushing the limits of experience to gain knowledge and shift perspective. And, of course, that brief moment comes in Ready or Not Here I Come as the final hiding place is discovered, and Antoni –  who is now naked and tucked beneath the secret folds of her mother’s dress –  is revealed to her father. The moment and its surprise for both father and daughter disappears just as quickly as it arose, and Antoni flees the scene. To hide once again is to recover from that momentary act of relinquishing control. Ultimately, it is a retreat from the moment of innocence lost.

Technology’s impact on culture and individual experience has become increasingly pervasive. It has changed the way we receive information about the world, the kind of information we receive, and the level of detail that is presented to us on a daily basis. Technology has also radically altered the way we communicate with one another and the ways in which we document our existence, to create meaning, memory, and context. 

The quirky, off-beat, and sometimes dark portrait of modern life conveyed in The Viewing Room contains fact and fiction and represents a sense and sensibility that is both biographical and universal. The challenge and invitation to engage and connect with these works is alternately achieved by way of emotional or intellectual empathy, memory, visceral, and experiential knowing. Throughout the exhibition, there is a certain mischief and a curious quality of voyeuristic participation that frames our viewing of the work.