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How Should Museums Display Film/Video Art?

By Steven Rosen · February 10th, 2010 · The Big Picture

As contemporary visual artists increasingly turn to video, film and projected images of all type, it becomes interesting to see how museums display their work. Are they like movies, deserving of a theater-like space where viewers can sit down and passively watch? Or are they more like performance art, encouraging viewers to walk amongst the moving images and become part of their environments?

It’s an issue I’ve been thinking about lately, seeing such art at Cincinnati Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center and other venues. The Art Museum right now is showing Doug Aitken’s electric earth, a relatively short but hypnotic video about a young man who imagines himself — possibly correctly — as the last man on earth. It’s a temporary exhibition, on view through April 11.

Aitken created electric earth for the 1999 Venice Biennale, where it won the International Prize. Aitken, an artist based in California and New York, has worked in still photography, sculpture and elaborate film/video installations. He’s coming to CAM on Feb. 17 to give a 2010 Lightborne Lecture, co-sponsored by the museum and Art Academy of Cincinnati. Admission is free; for more information call 513-562-6262.

In a twist on the notion of “I Sing the Body Electric,” the young man’s body in electric earth responds to the humming and clicking of his depopulated, industrial environment.

(The soundtrack features an appropriate “musique concrete” score.) As he walks, jerkily and trance-like, through the city he experiences a loss of self that may well be metaphoric. The film ends with a haunting image of the young man walking into a tunnel as its distorted fluorescent lighting seems to form the image of a hovering angel above him.

The art museum treats the experience of watching this piece like seeing a short film. It is projected on a large screen in a darkened gallery and there are two benches to sit and watch. It doesn't encourage active engagement; it's meant to be watched by folks who then go on to the rest of the museum.

But video art can also be part of group shows, as is the case with Cincinnati artist Charles Woodman’s five-screen “American Diorama,” part of Charlotte’s Light Factory Contemporary Museum of Photography and Film’s current Romance of the Road photography show. (I haven't seen it.)

For a far different experience, head up to Art Institute of Chicago’s new Modern Wing, into the heart of the contemporary galleries, where Bruce Nauman’s 1987 “Clown Torture” holds forth as part of the permanent collection. Yes, this video installation has its own space, but you can hear the intentionally obnoxious whoops and screams of the soundtrack as you approach. It permeates the nearby space — on purpose. Deal with it. (It’s also funny in a darkly satiric way.)

At the CAC, Marilyn Minter’s “Green Pink Caviar” video — in which a model licks bright candy on a glass sheet while the artist films the process from the other side — has been encouraged to get out and about. It's even screened on the Jumbotron TV screen on Fountain Square.

The CAC’s upcoming Shilpa Gupta show, which runs Feb. 20-May 2 and is the first solo museum show for the Indian artist, will have one piece, 2006’s “Half Widows,” that's a video projection onto the gallery floor. Such a piece demands the viewer be right there with the image, which can have a sculptural presence.

Someday, maybe, every city will have film/video (and photography) museums to work out all the issues with presentation and to meet the growing demand from audiences to see such art.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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