by Amy White
When it comes to good art, sometimes late is better than never. In August of last year I wrote about Volume I of Project 35, Independent Curators International (ICI)’s collection of new video works, 35 artists chosen by 35 curators from all over the globe, housed in a small dark room at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The series offers the chance to witness the great equalizing medium of video and its myriad expressive possibilities as taken up by a spectrum of artists from around the world, all within the confines of a single venue. Last Saturday, I returned to the small dark room at the NCMA just in time to catch the end of Volume II, which closes on Jan. 13. I came away invigorated but challenged, with the distinct sense that I’d been exposed to an array of new modalities of expression.
Daniela Paes Leäs is a Portuguese artist who lives and works in Amsterdam. Her video, "The Freedom to Question" (2008) is a meditation on the politics of hospitality in the relationship between sponsor and sponsored in the arts. It centers on Igor Dobricic, a programming administrator for the European Cultural Foundation and Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk who swapped offices every Wednesday for six months in 2007.
With the exception of a very brief glimpse of them at the start of the piece, the video’s protagonists are represented solely by their words, scrolling texts of their email correspondence. The piece includes occasional voiceover narration by Dobricic and van Heeswijk and by Canadian performer Tabitha Kane, who serves as a surrogate for Leäs, musing on her role as witness/observer. Leäs’s first-person commentaries blur the boundaries between artist and camera (“I” and “eye”) as it wanders through empty sterile office interiors past desks piled high with boxes and papers, gliding over books imprinted with salient words such as “gift,” “guide,” and “dialogues.”
The scrolling texts make it difficult to process the heady terms that are tossed back and forth by the two arts professionals. Phrases such as “Positive disposition of a negative condition (difference)” are challenging enough to parse in the relative stasis of the printed page or computer screen. Trying to manage them as they scroll past, often competing with voiceovers and other soundtrack elements, is close to impossible. The cumulative experience of "The Freedom to Question" becomes by necessity a kind of sonic/ visual abstraction, seeding our psyches with shards of word clusters and concepts that might subtly get us thinking about the dynamics between funder and funded in the arts.
Eschewing the standard video aspect ratio, "Man with Cockerell II" (2004) by New Delhi-based Ranbir Kaleka is framed vertically against a ground of black and comes off as an ink painting of the ocean that has come alive. From the video’s first moment, its stained, distressed surface is activated with rippling waters as a bare-armed man glides into frame grasping a large rooster to his chest. He raises his head just in time to stare directly into the camera as he fades swiftly into the mist. A bell clamors as gulls flap energetically across the top of the frame. Amid further sounds of clanking and crashing, the man reappears in the center of the frame clutching the rooster, which now begins to writhe, destabilizing the man, who stumbles out of frame as the bird escapes. Thus begins the set of binary actions that repeat throughout "Man with Cockerell II," establishing a philosophical construct: sometimes you keep the bird, sometimes you don’t.
The video’s absurdly cacophonous soundtrack, with its uproarious clanking, cranking, creaking and all manner of other madcap sonorities could have been lifted from a Laurel and Hardy film, a somehow perfect foil to the peaceful through-line of Kaleka’s video, which is the continual flow of the waters, eventually brought into welcome sync with actual water sounds toward the end, followed by blissful silence.
Ho Tzu Nyen’s "Episode 3: Tang Da Wu—The Most Radical Gesture" (2005) originally aired on Singaporean television as part of a series about four Singapore artists. The video unfolds in a white sound stage, tracking the fiery exchanges that flare up between a film director and his assistant as they argue philosophically and politically about how the subject of their film, the artist Tang Da Wu, should best be portrayed. The structure of ongoing argument perfectly serves the video’s educational mission. Amid takes and re-takes, disagreements about script changes and the ebb and flow of actors entering and exiting the white space, we learn that in 1995, when the government had placed a ban on funding for performance art, Tang Da Wu deftly executed an artistic coup by approaching the country’s president at a Singapore art fair. The artist put on a jacket with the deeply ironic words “Don’t Give Money To The Arts” emblazoned in yellow on the back, and he handed the president a card that said, “Dear Mr. President: I am an artist and I am important.”
Nyen makes use of filmic techniques that are distinctly reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard (displaying film apparatus, actors addressing the camera) and Lars Van Trier (using a sound stage as a set). Inasmuch as "Episode 3: Tang Da Wu . . ." purports to be about “the most radical piece of performance art ever performed in Singapore,” Nyen does well to cherry-pick radical cinematic gestures from the greats.
Sourcing the prodigious library of vintage VHS tapes that he has accumulated over the past quarter decade, UK artist Stephen Sutcliffe assembles video collages that communicate a dizzying sense of archival overwhelm on par with another found footage artist, Christian Marclay. Rejecting narrative continuity for structural rigor, Sutcliffe’s 2009 video, "Despair," is based on Nabokov’s novel of the same name (focusing, according to the artist, “more on literary style than [on] the content of the novel”) and (even more tangentially) on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film of the same name (although Sutcliffe has never seen it).
Such aesthetic bravado cuts two ways (and it’s not always pretty), but in Sutcliffe’s case, the at-best tenuous literary and cinematic templates pay off in dividends. It could be said that Suttcliffe exercised artistic discipline in not seeing Fassbinder’s film so as to fulfill his initial concept of producing a video collage for a film that he had never seen. Indeed, Sutcliffe is a fan of Fassbinder and cites Fassbinder’s visually dense title sequences as an inspiration for "Despair."
The piece opens to the soundtrack of courtly music by Jean-Baptiste Lully set against found snapshots of the people living at the height of privilege, lifestyles of the rich and richer, congregating at parties, ski resorts and other locales of leisure. "Despair" gives way to a deluge of visuals, a drawing attributed to Oscar Wilde etched into a window; the image of Fassbinder himself overlaid with a starburst formation apparently executed with cheesy out-of-the-box video software beneath, with an unidentified black and white film filling out the spokes of the star; and sequences of bubbling fountains culled from Kenneth Anger’s 1953 Fireworks (Eaux d’Artifice) (repurposed in slow-motion and doubled like Rorschach tests in flowing blues and blacks). A side effect of Sutcliffe’s collaged homage is that Nabokov’s Despair is now on my must-read list. Even a cursory look at the book suggests the video might actually hold up to literary-analytical scrutiny. Nabokov’s Despair begins, “If I were not perfectly sure of my power to write and of my marvelous ability to express ideas with the utmost grace and vividness … So, more or less, I had thought of beginning my tale.”
Project 35’s Volume II is rounded out with Congolese artist Sammy Baloj’s "Memory" (2006), with its desolate views of an industrialized landscape offset by campaign speeches that resound with empty promises, giving way to scenes in which dancer/ choreographer Faustin Linyekula communes with the stark environment through virtuosic movement, shirtless, barefoot, kicking up dust and affirming a luminous human resilience. The Belgian collaborative team of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys’s "Der Schlamm Von Branst (The Clay from the Branst)" (2008) presents a contrivance of high order, an artificial world of aesthetic production, a fake studio space where clay sculptures are produced, in which the makers, some donned with synthetic wigs, exist in a condition of stasis themselves, inhabiting pathetic human tableaux vivants interrupted only by periodic moans and whimpers.
Because no lay people are allowed in, for her video, "Little Works" (2007), German artist Andrea Buttner gave video cameras to the nuns in a Carmelite monastery so they could document and share the modest crafts they make in their down-time, crocheted baskets stiffened with sugar, decorative crucifixes, nylon flowers, and repeated drawings of the Virgin Mary as she appeared in a vision to one of the elder nuns: another kind of art world.