Art Meets Technology 

A daring, powerful exhibit at the Virginia Museum explores some remarkable video art.

The final installment of this show opened June 22 and runs through Aug. 18. Each segment of this sprawling series has presented a wide-ranging body of works by video-art pioneers. It also has showcased major video installations by artists curator John Ravenal says are "among the most significant video artists to emerge in the past decade." The acquisition for the museum's permanent collection of a major work by Bill Viola, perhaps video's most important artist, is both a curatorial coup for the museum and a magnificent cap to one of its most exciting exhibits in recent years.

Despite a rich, three-decades-plus history as an art form, video still courts critical and popular perplex. For every critic who champions it (Art Criticism's Donald Kuspit) another despises it (Time Magazine's Robert Hughes). Art patrons' attitudes also tend towards polarization. The litany of the unconvinced is familiar: Video art is too "dry," too "static," too "conceptual," too "boring," or simply "too much like television."

Painting remains our most familiar art-object-as-window configuration, and a painting can be glanced at and passed by or studied and scrutinized at the viewer's whim. In contrast, video — which unfolds chronologically, in both space and time — requires commitment. In order to experience and evaluate it, we must sit through it.

The final segment of "Outer & Inner Space" collects an unsettling body of works by a diverse cross section of important artists, loosely organized around themes of "vision, surveillance and power." Late '60s political turbulence and social malaise permeate works like "The Eternal Frame" (1975) — an irreverent, iconoclastic deconstruction of the Zapruder/Kennedy assassination film by T.R. Uthco and the Ant Farm collective; or "Video Tape Study No. 3" (1967-'69) by Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut, in which taped speeches by politicians are reassembled and played back at incorrect speeds for a mocking effect.

Other works are more expressive in character. Both Charlemagne Palestine's "Running Outburst"(1975) and Bill Viola's "The Space Between the Teeth" (1976) use the most pedestrian means to achieve a harrowing expressionism: Palestine runs in circles around a loft space, grunting and chanting in rhythm with his footsteps, creating a tense mood fraught with futility and anguish; Viola emits a sudden shrill scream from a chair at the end of a hallway, and the subsequent editing and re-editing of this image and sound creates a mood of alternating despair and detachment.

The most powerful work in the exhibit just might be the contemporary "Stasi City," a haunting video installation by British sisters Jane and Louise Wilson. This also uses pedestrian means — with one extraordinary exception — to create an environment that vibrates just below the surface with menace. "Stasi City" consists of four large wall projections that show the interior of the abandoned headquarters of the East German secret police — a building that also served as a catering depot for the Nazis and a Stalinist internment camp. Through this wretched space, the Wilsons' camera roams, slowly and smoothly like an omniscient eye, showing us hallways, empty offices, interrogation chambers and an operating room, while a minimal soundtrack of ambient whistles and mechanical whirs adds to our unease.

Because the surrounding images are in constant motion, any physical movement by the viewer creates a queasy kind of vertigo. But "Stasi City's" main strength lies in its understated content: It contains no conventionally disturbing imagery, only unoccupied rooms where we know men and women once suffered under state terror. Intercut with these scenes is a mysterious vision — the piece's only contrived "process" shot — of a woman floating through the air in one of the rooms. It's an unforgettable, inscrutable image full of dark psychological resonance. Is this the ghost of a victim? A shattered psyche dissociated from a tortured body?

Less grim but mining an expressive vein no less profound is Bill Viola's "Quintet of the Unseen," a video installation just purchased by the museum. In this large wall projection, three men and two women face the camera and in extreme slow motion — Viola has stretched a single minute of footage into over 15 minutes here — express a gamut of emotions from sorrow to ecstasy with facial expressions and bodily gestures that change almost imperceptibly slowly. Viola shows us their brightly colored forms with a degree of high resolution inspired by the light-bathed, crystalline renderings of Northern Renaissance masters like van der Weyden or Van Eyck. The effect of the piece is deeply humanistic in its respectful representation of the nuances of human expression, but it also emphasizes how alone with our feelings we ultimately are, even when in the company of others.

In a moving and insightful lecture before the opening of "Outer & Inner Space," Viola explained how much of his recent work was inspired by life-changing events — the births of his children, the deaths of his parents — and by his rediscovery of the emotional power of Renaissance and mannerist religious painting: specifically, the heart-wrenching images of grief, sorrow, death and dying, so ubiquitous in Christian iconography but made so human by these post-Medieval artists.

"A lot of my recent work," Viola said, "is about trying to understand what's going on in these pictures." Viola also asserted — in a dialectical formulation he adapted from religious scholar Houston Smith — that the two greatest forces an evolving artist must reckon with are "technology" and "revelation."

Fitting words from an artist who must harness a contemporary technology in order to reify his unique psycho-spiritual vision, and when he elaborated on this idea a moment later he could have been devising a motto for "Outer and Inner Visions" or for video art in general. "That's what artists do," he said. "They have to make a revelation technical." S


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