I'm hardly a Luddite, but there is something about exhibitions of film and video art that makes me want to run amok and break things. The current exhibition, Illuminations, at the Ackland Art Museum, while not as provoking as some, does make me want to take away the video cameras and the computer animation software and the editing effects and the touch-screens and all the other gizmos of the artists included in this exhibit. I'd like to see if they actually have anything to show or tell, or if they are just amusing themselves with their high-tech toys.
Video and film are--as we are never allowed to forget--at the core of contemporary culture, and they are highly seductive media. With them, an artist can include the dimension of time in the work, and the potential for layering, splicing and sequencing images is infinite. Naturally, people want to work this way. Unfortunately, their ideas often turn out to be so slight as to crumple under the weight of the technologies that manifest them.
Another challenge of video production is that it gets expensive to produce something that looks good. While you may get away with low production values if your idea is simple and direct and your approach to the technology naive, it is much harder to do so while trying to show off a repertoire of fancy video tricks superimposed on shaky, stepped-on, low-end-format footage, as Mariko Mori does in her poorly executed "Kumano." Many people working in video don't seem to realize that there's a craft to it, and that craft starts with some basic rules. Lighting is god. Timing is everything. Nobody really cares about your navel but you--you need to have something to express that is worth somebody else's attention. Whether or not you like to think so, video and film are sequential linear temporal events, and as such are intrinsically narrative. You had better know how to tell your story, and how to use your images with dramatic force.
The only artist in the Ackland show whose pieces strike me as completely successful is William Kentridge, and his is, ironically, the most old-fashioned and lowest-tech work in the exhibition. A native of South Africa, Kentridge makes what he calls "Drawings for Projection," and the exhibit includes four of his short animated films. He draws in charcoal on large sheets of paper, adding to or erasing from his scenes as he shoots each frame of film. By the end, the paper is nearly worn through, and you can see the traces of the drawing's history in its present state. There are no slick tricks here, and there's nothing cute about these animations: They are filled with haunted, pensive characters, anonymous Everymen and Everywomen working like automatons, and a pathetic wasted landscape that seems the physical manifestation of South Africa's terrible history. Each film is brief, just long enough to unfold its meaning. Using the time-tested techniques of dramatic narrative, Kentridge rivets our attention and brands his stories into our retinas, and his method reinforces his message. Like all important art, these films demand and reward repeated viewing.
In contrast, the rest of the work here barely requires one viewing. Some of it is very clever--but a one-liner is a one-liner. Tony Oursler's "Eye in the Sky" falls into this category. This hybrid video sculpture comprises a Fiberglas sphere with video projected onto it. What we think we see is a giant eyeball floating in space. The eye blinks and twitches; in it we glimpse the constantly changing reflection of a television screen as the eye consumes its images. It's monstrous--but we knew that.
Peter Sarkisian's "Hover" also projects images onto an object. A large cube sits on the floor, the same scene shot from five angles projected onto its five visible sides: It's like a Lucas Samaras mirror box turned inside out. In the video a nude mother and child move as if contained in a glass cube. At first they seem comfortable and playful, but become increasingly frantic in their confinement. Finally the image bursts apart and the scene goes to black. It's a clever piece, and very well made, but I can't think it will have any lasting value. I just wish that, like this mother and child, more video artists would break out of their glassy techno-boxes and use the imaging power of film and video for greater purposes than brief amusement.