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Living on Video

Still from "the world won't listen" by Phil Collins, named for the album by the Smiths.

Videosphere: video installations at the Albright-Knox

Videosphere: A New Generation, the exhibit of 26 videos at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, all from the gallery collection, including 18 new acquisitions never before shown at the Albright-Knox, is superb. The works range from spectacular visually and conceptually to merely interesting.

The most spectacular get top billing. Such as the three-screen immersive piece in the main sculpture court by Isaac Julien. By means of magnificent visuals of natural and constructed environment and breathtaking reenactments of crucial action moments, it tells the poignant story, often of tragic outcome, of the attempt by Africans to exchange the devil they know for the devil they don’t know by clandestine, perilous voyage in fishing boats from the North African shore to Sicily, a distance of 100 miles over choppy seas. Among the constructed environment visuals are Sicilian palace interiors reminiscent of the baroque world of the book and movie Il Gattopardo, by way of conspicuous contrast to the undoubted abject poverty conditions the migrants are attempting to flee. The story is rivetingly told in an innovative fragmentary manner—reinforced by the three-screen projection—that nonetheless well conveys the essential pathetic narrative.

From "The Messenger" by Bill Viola.
From "the world won't listen", comprising karaoke by participants from Bogota, Istanbul, and Jakarta.

Then in the northside central gallery, the multiplex video—also shown on three screens, separated by barrier walls that prevent viewing all three screens at the same time but do not prevent hearing the aural mix, which is part of the point of the work—of karaoke renditions by individuals and duos and trios from Bogotá, Colombia, Istanbul, Turkey, and Jakarta, Indonesia, of songs in English from the Smiths’ album The World Won’t Listen. This world music piece makes the point that it’s just one world. The singers know the words by heart, as well as the appropriate melancholic performance projection demeanor, though as often as not something more upbeat takes over in their actual performances. This piece is by Phil Collins, video artist. Not Phil Collins, rock musician with Genesis. Two different guys.

Meanwhile, in the Gallery for New Media, Sarah Morris’s piece is an astringent essay on the international style, with particular respect to two icons of modern domestic architecture, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, built in 1949, and Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, built in 1951, focusing on the elegant look and feel of those structures and manicured natural environs, with excursions into commercial business vicissitudes of the architectural profession and practice. Such as lawsuits.

And in the large room traditionally devoted to Clyfford Still paintings, Bill Viola’s video of a naked man in water alternately submerging and then, after an excruciatingly long interval, resurfacing and rebreathing oxygen rescues the metaphor of rebirth (in its wide variety of metaphorical applications) from the usurptive grasp of scriptural literalist typically right-wing political and social issue Christians. The Viola piece is called The Messenger.

Among smaller installations, John F. Simon, Jr.’s video semaphore with references to rail and automobile traffic patterns and control systems and the art of Piet Mondrian, but actually animating the animation Mondrian only indicated in a still painting. Is that an advance? Or does the actual animation supply what was formerly an audience imaginative function crucial to the aesthetic experience of the Mondrian work? The question seems to impinge on some of the hype about this novel art form as aesthetic millennium. The exhibit brochure has frequent recourse to ideas and insights of video theorist Gene Youngblood, who articulates such an inanity as “Only through technology is the individual free enough to know himself and thus to know his own reality.” Poor William Shakespeare, I think, who didn’t have video. He could have really been something. Youngblood goes on to say, “Through the art and technology of expanded cinema we shall create heaven right here on earth.” Give me a break.

A lovely little meditational piece by Shahzia Sikander employs Persian miniature iconography and cartoon flower and landscape imagery and fades and dissolves to suggest turmoil, social convolution, possibly revolution, and their lamentable obliterative effects in exchange for new and hopefully better social systems. Maybe that’s what it’s about, but it’s a beautiful work in any case.

A piece by Gianfranco Foschino, called La Fenêtre, is a short silent movie about a window in an old-folks’ residence and the denizens who appear in the window to look out on the passing street scene and maybe converse a little before going on with other business, which may or not be pressing. It’s not a luxurious old-folks’ residence, but looks like a converted former industrial building, faced with corrugated material, painted baby blue.

And for something completely different, Peter Sarkisian’s Extruded Video Engine #5 is a kind of scrap heap of technological apparatus video sculpture, with passing reference to Pac-Man and Monte Python in the wriggling worms of text—snippets of disjointed narrative—amid the disconnected tech paraphernalia.

And lots more. The gargantuan Videosphere exhibit was curated by Holly Hughes. It’s something to see. It continues through October 9.

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