‘These Pieces Are Alive’
Not many art exhibitions are fronted by a lounge-singing koi fish. The fish, a video created by artist Matthew Weinstein and entitled Three Love Songs from the Bottom of the Ocean (2005), bats her long eyelashes and croons torch songs into an old-fashioned standing microphone. Visitors encounter the fish as they enter Blink! Light, Sound, and the Moving Image, a new exhibition of artworks from the Denver Art Museum’s collection, all based on electronic and time-based media, on view from March 13 to May 1, 2011. Plump red sofas invite viewers to linger in front of the fish (and complement the work’s retro vibe).
Three Love Songs’ playful mix of contemporary technology and vintage pop culture works well as an introduction to Blink!. One of the themes that emerges with surprising force from this group of works is their engagement with memory and history. Yet this is appropriate to works that consciously unfold in time, asking the viewer to remain with them for minutes (or even, potentially, hours or days) as images and sounds succeed each other, many hauntingly familiar, yet strangely altered in their new context.
Still Men Out There (2009), a six channel video installation with sound by Bjørn Melhus, weaves dialogue from Hollywood war films into a surprisingly cohesive and poignant new narrative of a soldier’s experience of war. Christian Marclay’s video Telephones (1995) also makes use of classic Hollywood films, splicing clips of telephone conversations together into a montage that undoes whatever meaning the original scenes tried to convey. (Given the changes in phone technology and use since 1995, the piece has already gained a historical dimension. Will children viewing the exhibition even be familiar with many of these devices?)
Other works push even deeper into cultural memory. In Mark Wallinger’s seven minute video Angel (1997), reversed footage of the artist walking backwards on an escalator in London’s Angel underground station is accompanied by the sound of his voice reciting the opening words of the Gospel of St. John. The artist recorded himself speaking the words backwards – shades of the legend that witches could be identified by their inability to recite the Lord’s prayer anyway but backwards – however, the tape is reversed so the familiar words (“In the beginning…”) emerge, but in a strangely distorted manner. (Would that have gotten you hanged in Salem?)
Artist Jim Campbell also builds a work around the language of the King James Bible. Campbell’s piece, entitled I Have Never Read the Bible (1995), consists of a well-worn, leather-bound Victorian edition of Webster’s dictionary, mounted on the wall and hooked up to a speaker. Campbell recorded himself speaking each letter of the alphabet aloud, and used this recording to create an audio track on which each letter of the Bible is spoken aloud, in order, from beginning to end. Listening to a full repetition would take 37 days. The breathy, raspy, sound of Campbell’s voice as he aspirates each letter of the King James Version is another eerie experience, and I found myself wondering how Biblical literalists would react to these pieces. It’s not merely a question of recontextualizing the sacred. These electronic time-based media, by their nature, raise questions about the degree to which the meanings we attach to words and images depend on the media that transmit them.
These media also raise their own very practical problems. One has to come right into the small space in which Campbell’s work is installed to hear his voice. This element of intimacy works here – I am suddenly reminded of old paintings in which tiny angels are seen whispering the words of the Bible into the ears of prophets and evangelists – but at times various works threaten to compete with each other. The ringing of Marclay’s Telephones is especially penetrating, and Mark Amerika’s CODEWORK (2003) required its own room, says director of technology Koven Smith, because it’s simply too loud to mix with other works.
“These pieces are alive,” says Smith, referring to the unique challenges presented by installation, and the sometimes unexpected ways in which they interacted with one another. Melhus’s Still Men Out There was plagued by interference whose origin was never successfully identified. At one point Heather Carson’s Light/Albers #5, constructed from fluorescent bulbs, was a suspect; the bright light shed by Carson’s piece also necessitated the careful positioning of Oscar Munoz’s video work La Linea del Destino (2006) and Jeremy Blake’s Winchester (2002), an 18-minute digital animation of California’s Winchester Mystery House accompanied by the soft whirring of an old-fashioned film projector.
I found it fitting to encounter the Winchester Mystery House here (I also wished I had more time for it, and it had a more sheltered space). The ever-changing light levels – mostly quite low, the overlapping soundtracks, and the labyrinthine layout necessitated by the works’ need for their own spaces, create an environment reminiscent of a funhouse. The carnivalesque invitations to see the wonders inside flashing on an electronic sign by the entrance to the gallery are a witty acknowledgement of this.
Additionally, “artists have the luxury of moving on to new technology” says Smith, while museums have the task of keeping older pieces functional even as the technology used to create them becomes obsolete. Director of conservation Sarah Mulching put it more succinctly: “Every piece has its unique way of breaking down”. A work such as Nam June Paik’s Electronic Fish of 1986, constructed from a 1948 wooden Philco television console converted into an aquarium, fitted with a soundtrack recorded on audiocassette playing on a vintage 1980s car stereo, and tuned to an analog TV signal, poses conservational challenges as daunting as any presented by a crumbling quattrocento fresco. Even on the literal level, the incorporation into the art world of works based on media and technologies that are constantly changing is still a work in progress. It is only fitting, then, that so many of the pieces in Blink! directly engage our experience of time, history, and memory.