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Thursday, May 22, 2008
A screen as canvas
Special to The Japan Times
In 1965, pioneering video artist Nam June Paik made the bold statement that "just as the collage technic has replaced oil paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas." Like any provocation, it has not aged well as the passage of time has whittled away at its importance.
Traditional canvases continue to offer pregnant possibilities for contemporary artists, and the history of oil paint continues forward — and back: Oil paint was recently freed from its supposed European origins when Yoko Taniguchi of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo discovered works done in the medium in a mid-7th century Afghan cave mural.
Oil paint's existence across such an expanse of time should shed a rather harsh light on artistic preoccupations with new technologies. "Still/Motion: Liquid Crystal Painting," currently showing at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, till June 15, then at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, offers the opportunity to reflect upon video — the avant-garde medium since Paik's popularization of it — its curious debt to painting and whether it is destined for the scrap heap by-and-by.
Time is the central conceptual thread to works in the exhibition. Video screens temporalize the still image of painting, turning it into something closer to cinema — though often without the same commitment to narrative.
Sam Taylor-Wood's "A Little Death" (2002) portrays the decomposition of a rabbit. The work departs from the still-life paintings of the 17th-century Dutch Vanitas genre that took life's meaninglessness as their subject. As the rabbit's body liquefies, all that remains is a formless stain. The work explores both artistic and scientific questions (though a more compelling cinematic predecessor is the 1985 feature film "A Zed and Two Naughts" by Peter Greenaway).
The nature of viewing video art is the subject of a work by influential musician Brian Eno. In "Thursday Afternoon" (1984), the artist uses footage of a half-undressed friend to create a work video that the viewer would "look at and walk away from as one would a painting." "Thursday" addresses the problem of showing video work in galleries rather than cinematic venues. Spectators rarely arrive at the beginning, and often move on part way through. For how long should one watch, or better, when might be best to slip away? Painting is immediately available to the viewer in its entirety, but as guest curator Inagaki Takashi notes, "the screening of video is ill-suited to museum display," because museums are designed for the spatial arts.
Senju Hiroshi's "A Forest of Water" (2008), which appears like a Japanese folding screen, is essentially a backlit landscape, but one given modern depth by little movements such as rippling water or the sound of a bird call in the distance. The technology here amplifies the visual power of the image, but it also turns the conventions of ink painting into kitsch.
Perhaps the most successful negotiation of video is by Dominik Lejman in "Yo Lo Vi" (2006). At the bottom of the screen a naked man kneels with hands bound behind him, his head shrouded by a white cone, forced down over what appears as an executioner's block. The work refers to Goya's "The Tribunal of the Inquisition" (c. 1816) — though some will obviously think of Abu Ghraib. As spectators approach the wall panel, their image is imported onto the screen, appearing as judge to the victim and accruing culpability.
Yasumasa Morimura puts video to intriguing use in "Vermeer Study: Looking Back (Mirror)" (2008), an installation of the studio of the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. In a multilevel work, Morimura reveals the artistic process of the painter by chronicling an exchange of glances between different manifestations of himself — he dresses up as both the artist and model — and the coming into being of a final still image that mimics Vermeer's famous "Girl with an Earring" (1666).
As a snapshot of the evolution of technology in art, the results of the exhibition are, not surprisingly, mixed. When LCD screens are used in a thought-provoking manner, as in Lejman's and Morimura's works, the encounter is rich. Put to use in a conceptual vacuum, as in Julian Opie's minimalist figures that wink at spectators, video art looks much like tawdry advertising signs.
"Still/Motion — Liquid-Crystal Painting" is at The National Museum of Art, Osaka till June 15; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (7 p.m. Fri; closed Mon.); admission ¥900. The exhibition comes to Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography Aug. 23-Oct. 13 (www.syabi.com). For more information call (06) 6447-4680 or visit www.nmao.go.jp