Cleaning the Mirror

Who was Vito Acconci's dentist in 1975, and didn't he realize that the artist's mouth needed a lot of work? So I found myself wondering at the Guggenheim, while staring into a video monitor—at a piece by Acconci called Open Book (1975)—which displays that eternal trickster's gaping orifice, uttering nearly inarticulate protestations of his pseudo-feminine vulnerability and receptivity.

Poverty may have been endemic among '70s Conceptual artists, but its faint shadow has only recently fallen across today's art world, where Guggenheim-bashing has become a common pastime. In the wake of staff cuts and major reshufflings, the museum's practices have been scrutinized both in The New York Times and in these pages, where an esteemed colleague called for its director's resignation.

"Moving Pictures," a spunky and engaging show of some 150 pieces by 55 mostly big-name artists working with photography and video, was created to fill the gap left by a postponed Kasimir Malevich exhibition. Drawn from the Guggenheim's permanent collection, and focusing on work produced within the last 12 years (though it also includes a selection of seminal earlier pieces), it provides an appealing introduction to this burgeoning field, while also allowing us a peek at the museum's shopping lists.

Go ask Alice: Anna Gaskell's Untitled #5 (Wonder) (1996).
photo: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Go ask Alice: Anna Gaskell's Untitled #5 (Wonder) (1996).

That the art on view sticks close to the mainstream of the contemporary canon should surprise no one. Acquisition committees, after all, rarely go out on a limb to grab work that nobody else has recognized. Cognoscenti will undoubtedly wish for a bit more novelty. But curators Lisa Dennison and Nancy Spector have sifted through a decade in which photography and video have become the lingua franca of working artists—spreading like twin plagues through studios and galleries—and culled many of the best pieces by those who have made substantial contributions to the media.

Coming on the heels of last season's "Into the Light" at the Whitney Museum, a more tightly focused exhibition of 15 pioneering artists' works from the '60s and '70s, this show also provides ample evidence, for anyone still wondering, that video art has as long a shelf life (critically speaking) as painting, and that the current generation has much to learn by a backward look at their predecessors.

One way to view this sprawling exhibition (which fills all six levels of the rotunda and spills over into several side galleries, aided by designer-architect Hani Rashid's elegant, minimalist installation) is to pick a theme, and chart its transformations. Take nature. On the ground floor, Nam June Paik's TV Garden (1974)—best seen from ramps far above—is a giddy celebration. Proliferating greenery is dotted with video monitors on which gyrating musicians and performers dissolve into psychedelic colors: art and nature, mischievously feeding off each other's inherent anarchy.

One wonders if a contemporary artist could embrace fields, mud, beaches, and flowers with the romantic yearning made palpable in Ana Mendieta's "Silhueta" series (1976-78), photographs recording the outline of her body, traced in tree branches, mounds of earth, or fire. These were remnants of private rites and performances, whose intent (to shore up a fragile sense of identity?) remains mysterious.

A bit further along, how remote her art seems from Peter Fischli and David Weiss's riotous, greeting-card-gone-wild sensibility, evident in their 111 jewel-toned portraits of blossoms. Is this work only superficially superficial? By confusing high and pop culture, the museum's wall text informs us, Untitled (Flowers) (1997-98) "pushes the limits of acceptability in Conceptual art," and it certainly pushed mine.

A creepy, post-Spielbergian nature appears in Gregory Crewdson's uncanny Twilight series (1998-2002)—cinematically staged pictures of suburbanites digging up sod in their living rooms, or touched by an unearthly light while wading in kiddie pools. An elegiac, soon-to-be-lost nature informs Olafur Eliasson's grid of documentary photographs showing aerial views of melting Icelandic glaciers. And a virgin landscape's politically contested history is embodied in Stan Douglas's video installation, where the lush hills and inlets of Vancouver Island divide and recompose on-screen, while on the soundtrack the spoken testimonies of two colonial conquerors weave a strange duet.

Transience and mortality are also recurrent themes for artists working in photography and video, media with the ability to arrest time or convey its passage. Felix Gonzalez-Torres's 1994 photomural of a footprint in the sand is a poetic gesture, as ephemeral (since it can only be installed once) as the phenomenon it captures. Performance artist Marina Abramovi´c, who began her career in the '70s, strikes a note of somber dignity with Cleaning the Mirror #1 (1995), an installation of five stacked video monitors, which show her scrubbing the bones of a skeleton, from skull to metatarsals. The work recalls both Tibetan death rites and photography's ghost, the X ray. And Rineke Dijkstra's delicate, haunting Cibachrome portraits of young people alone, clad in bathing suits and standing by the shoreline at Coney Island or in Odessa, are some of the show's most moving newer pieces, evoking the fleeting, awkward grace of adolescent self-consciousness.

Many artists have been lured to photography and video with the promise of self-transformation. Here, their work includes Acconci's documentation of his experiments, in the privacy of his studio, with turning his body into that of a woman; Bruce Nauman's artist-as-shaman, applying makeup in a mesmerizing two-screen installation; Hannah Wilke's audacious photographs of her own naked torso, covered with tiny, artificial vulvae; Cindy Sherman's patently fake porn queen; and, more recently, Anna Gaskell's photographs of self-destructive little Alices, lost in Wonderland.

At the very top of the rotunda, in a warren of soundproof alcoves, are works on video, among them some of the exhibition's highlights. History of the Main Complaint (1996), William Kentridge's magnificent hand-animation, intertwining personal and political history in a requiem for the losses that paved the routes of the new South Africa, is by now well known. But there are also less familiar works to discover, such as performance artist Patty Chang's visceral videotape evoking the filial bond, and John Pilson's funny/creepy installation about office space.

And anyone who didn't get to see Pierre Huyghe's knockout show last winter at Marian Goodman Gallery has a chance to catch his The Third Memory (1999). For this video, Huyghe tracked down John Woytowicz, a gay man whose foiled 1972 robbery of a bank in Queens (part of an effort to finance his lover's sex-change operation) inspired Sidney Lumet's movie Dog Day Afternoon. Woytowicz, now well past middle age, both restages the event with actors and adds his personal reflections, mixing memory and cinema in a fascinating hybrid that also recalls Michel Foucault's description of hermaphrodites as "the third sex."

If, over all, one misses the funky radicality of, say, Hélio Oiticica, a Brazilian artist whose film installations from the 1970s (currently on view at the New Museum) encouraged viewers to lie in hammocks and paint their toenails while watching them; if one hungers after the sheer nuttiness (and relative freshness) of, say, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, a Finnish artist whose videotapes of women in various states of psychotic decay were a hit at this year's Documenta; if, in short, one feels there is a bit too much good taste at work here, and (dare I say it) a few too many representatives of the dour school of German photography; well, at least Solomon Guggenheim would most likely have approved of the latter, and tipped his hat to the show's winning combination of sobriety and newness.

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