TV is great even when it’s loathsome, bathing us in images of electric light and fantasy. Or, is it that TV is loathsome even when it’s great, inducing passivity and schizoid decay? Whatever, researchers report that the average American household watches more than six hours of television a day, and, as David Foster Wallace observed, most of us have only ever seen an average American household on TV. Weirdly though— and this shows how out of touch, or avant-garde, we are— the art world barely admits to watching television, let alone enjoying it. The art world likes video.
Until recently, video meant art, and television meant leisure. East was east, west was west, with no such thing as a twaining. Initially, video art looked like a way to bridge the gap. By the early 1970s, equipment became more portable and less expensive, and artists began to deploy this new medium in galleries. But the idea of making video be more like TV was anathema to a generation of artists who didn’t trust television. So the separation grew. Back then, you’d sit in grungy little rooms, watching really long black-and-white videos of people pointing their cameras at their buildings, lofts, bodies, dogs, skies, fields of grain, water, wood, you name it. Most of it was pretty boring, but video was as much a cause as a medium. In the 1980s, just when painting picked up and money moved in, video faded away. It couldn’t cope with that much materiality. So it waited and watched. Younger, soon-to-be video artists learned from television, from MTV, the History Channel, movie networks, nature shows, newscasts, and after-school specials. They weren’t suspicious of this piece of furniture that provided entertainment; they were suspicious of art.
Now it feels like all roads lead to video, or at least to a lot of darkened rooms, big projections, or banks of monitors, as video gives photography and installation art a run for the money as the art medium of the moment. In any event, the borders between art and video have blurred, and that’s good.
The reasons for this are many, some of them obvious: the sheer ubiquity of television, the rise of cable, technical advances too great to number, a generation of artists raised on “six hours a day,” and the relaxation of art world prohibitions against entertainment. This doesn’t mean the new video is necessarily better than the old. Seven minutes can still seem like seven hours in certain installations. Plus video, like its older uncle photography, is easy to make, but hard to make good.
Let’s be optimistic though and say Bill Viola’s vainly sentimental, formally hokey, overproduced, two-floor foray into New Ageyness at the Whitney last year was the low-water mark of the old video. It was no art and all television— bad television— cloaked in art’s most solemn clothes. Serious and sanctimonious, it was real Old Testament. Using Viola as a backdrop then, this season has felt better. A number of shows this past fall, and two current exhibitions, illustrate how artists have channeled aspects of television into their art in order to mongrelize and perfect both.
Doug Aitken is a New Documentarian who has a storyteller’s eye for the ways deserted landscapes offer up their histories. Like a lot of artists, he looks for new ways to build narrative. In his third solo show in New York, this precocious 30-year-old, who also directs music videos, and who is a kind of one-man Discovery Channel, presents Eraser, a three-room, seven-screen nature docu-myth. Unfolding in laid-back, almost stoner rhythms is a linear seven-mile trek he made across the tiny Caribbean island of Monserrat in 1998, nearly two years after the dome of the Soufrières volcano collapsed.
The initial effect of the installation is flat and unfocused, but things accrue. Gorgeously colored tropical landscapes and destroyed townscapes dart by. Aitken shoots on film— he loves light embedding itself in emulsion— then projects in the pure data of video. At this scale, it’s like a nature channel from another dimension. There’s no voice-over, only quiet, ambient music and the sounds of the jungle. What begins with low, gliding views of the shore, foliage, and dry river beds, builds with restrained momentum toward strange glimpses of abandoned bulldozers, empty stores, and burned-out huts; staccato shots of a deserted airstrip; the sudden appearance of a lost herd of cattle; the new barren contours of lava; and finally the inconclusive overcast sky. Somehow, he’s gotten you to understand that something terrifying happened here.
Aitken’s greatest gift is that he takes his medium for granted. So
unselfconscious is his use of video that he could be called a latter-day landscape painter, although his sense of craft and cultural slippage, and his feel for how his medium can render memories, connects him to artists like Jane & Louise Wilson, Douglas Gordon, Keith Edmier, Jorge Pardo, and Gabriel Orozco. Eraser is good but not an improvement over his 1997 high point, Diamond Sea. Eraser is subtler and shows Aitken perfecting his skills, but its cadence is predictable— he knows these moves by now. It’s as if he were simply completing a project. These Restless Minds, another video installation in the back gallery, consists of three monitors suspended from the ceiling. In it, Aitken merges urban and rural landscapes with scenes and voice-overs of auctioneers rehearsing their numerical babble. This joining of place and people
feels important and gives Aitken’s art something bigger to be about.
Shirin Neshat’s Turbulent, a video installation of two singers projected on opposite walls of an otherwise darkened gallery, looks like a stripped-down CNN documentary, or a particularly inspired segment of 60 Minutes. With it, she rescues her art from a pictorial and pedantic dead end. Neshat, 41, was born in Iran, left in 1973, and didn’t go back until 1989. She returned to the U.S. to make black-and-white photographs of herself covered head to toe in a black chador. Graphically slick, her pictures were also profoundly didactic, stuck in the self-
inscribed cul-de-sac of “identity art.” Turbulent changes everything.
On one wall, a male singer enters a concert hall while an all-male audience looks on. He begins to sing an enraptured 13th-century poem of sacred and erotic longing. When he finishes, the audience applauds. He looks across the room at the other projection, to a woman in a chador, who has stood silently throughout his song, in a similar, but empty, auditorium. In Iran, women are not permitted to sing in public. She sings an impassioned, wordless song of supernal sounds, breaths, wails, cries, and moans, as if a thousand voices were pouring out of her. It’s amazing— a primal scream. You think you hear birds, brooks, and the secret sounds of the human heart. In this, the best work of her career so far, Neshat has made an overtly political work that isn’t bogged down in politics, and suggests she should abandon still photography for video.