I See: A Personal Encounter with a Video Art Exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum

 

"I have no idea what I'm doing," the man says, in a tone that is strongly guttural  yet vulnerable. 

His is a confession that is both whispery and explosive. The confessor is Vito Acconci, an American artist. 

  The videotape is not edited. It is grainy; defintely not high definition. The colors and lighting are harsh.  We  see the back of Acconci's head and hear him humming  happily to himself.  Acconci suddenly turns, faces the camera and opens his mouth to shoot a rapid fire list of personal weakness and artistic insecurities. He turns his back to us and starts humming again.. After a while, he turns again, confronts us and violently explodes into another confession. According to a nearby sign, Acconci is expressing " the intense pressure of public scrutiny of an artist's work." I have two reactions to this statement.

   The first is "So what?" A teacher in an inner city school experiences intense pressure and his or her work is often scrutinized by parents and bureaucrats. Politicians, athletes and celebrities perform before thousands and are mocked, insulted and betrayed by the public. I experience nothing but a small sense of amusement listening to Acconci's piece. Clearly case of self-pity, albeit a dynamic one.

   My second reaction is how perfect the piece is in capturing the milieau of the early Seventies. The American baby boomers were making their presence felt in every area of society. Leisure and entertainment became big business; so did drugs and art. The tape, called Turn On, was made in 1974. The tape's title does not refer to drugs or sex. What is being turned on and off is the artist's private persona.

Like very early Iggy Pop, Turn On is punk poetry before there was punk. Nihilistic.  "I have no conviction anymore," Acconci screams,"I can't find any reason to do art.  "I'm waiting for you ... not to be there."

 

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"Excuse me! Yes, you sir, with the plaid shirt and the cast, please turn around three times. Now jump around on one leg."

  The young man with the plaid shirt and the cast does what he is told. Mine is the voice giving commands. I have hijacked an artwork. I am enjoying myself in SAM. I am reminded of my father who once flipped the lights on and off in a restaurant. We were sitting by the switch and well, he flipped it on and off. It was amusing.

     Here, there is a microphone, a loudspeaker and a surveillance system. There is very clearly the opportunity to communicate- but no one touches the piece. Except me. I ask the stunned young man with the cast what happened to his arm.He looks up at the surveillance camera. " I snapped a bone playing football," he responds, with some embarrassment.

   "Alright, then. Take care! On behalf of the Singapore Art Museum and the Centre Pompidou, I cordially welcome you to enjoy this carefully chosen selection of video art created between 1965 and 2010!" Of course I am not an official representative of the museum.

   I do, however, have strong associations with some of the pieces and the artists who created them...

It is New York, 1983. One of the guys in my band, Rich, is also a videomaker. He knows Paul Garrin, who often assists Nam June Paik. One Saturday, while Nam June is teaching in Germany, Paul lets Rich and I in to Nam June's studio. Rich and I bring coffee and egg sandwiches so we can stay all day. Paul explains things and then goes back to his area, a space  filled with miles of cables and towers of old TVs.  Rich and I feel like we're Mickey Mouse in the Sorceror's Apprentice. Next to us is a TV that displays a "moon".. Paul showed us how the moon effect was created- you just put a magnet on the electron gun on the cathode ray tube of a black and white television..

This is what I think of when I walk into the SAM room where Paik's row of  TV moons is displayed.

   I think of my other intersections with the father of video art:

-January 1, 1984.Nam June's "Good Morning Mr. Orwell," is being produced in New York to become the first international satellite "installation." Although I had been determined to be one of its 25 million viewers, my very extended New Year's Eve party makes this impossible.

 - Nam June's retrospective and his sculpture made of over a thousand monitors were additional reasons for me going to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

 

Bill Viola has a video in this show. One of the things I associate with him is this: driving from San Pedro to Long Beach, over the bridge, over Terminal Island. Devo is playing on KROQ.I am in a 1968 Cadillac Eldorado, cream with a black vinyl top. There are Frank Sinatra 8 tracks on the seat beside me. The drive to the video session is cinematic and Californian, the session itself is hellish. The editing gear is alien. The assistant is also puzzled. He disappears. A moment later he returns with a man who listens to what I am trying to do. The man is pleasant and after another question or two, he goes to the patchbay and unplugs and replugs several cables. I am able to complete my tape thanks to Bill Viola. I thank him profusely and never see him again.

 

There is a clip of  Laurie Anderson making sounds by hitting her head:

Laurie Anderson's name, created with a typewriter and neatly positioned in the center of a narrow white  piece of paper, has been  taped to her white door. I am delivering an envelope full of exhibition materials to her neighbor.

At the time, seeing that slip of paper seemed artisticly and cosmically important. Now, I feel silly writing about it.

 

Apichatpong Weerase and Christelle Lheureux, Ghost of Asia. Their two channel piece is light hearted; full of blue water and golden light. Working with children, they have created a piece about the Boxing Day tsunami of 2005. I listen to the children's voices but what I hear are the voices of the people I documented in southern Sri Lanka, the voices of people whose loved ones had been taken away by the sea,. The recordings are full of great sadness.

 

Lee Wen. I see him at the exhibition's opening, we greet each other and later I experience the tunnelvision of his piece about world class Singapore.

 

The short video clip of a member of Sankaijuku performing upside down triggers a flood of memories of my collaborations with butoh and post butoh dancers, from Kim Itoh to Barae to Tanaka Min and Kazuo Ono.

 

 In a variety of ways, the exhibition references the idea that video art is both personal and public: Like video art, my life with video has been a mix of small intimate moments and huge impersonal corporate mechanisms. I have created a tape of my daughter inside her mother. I have been paid by Rupert Murdoch's network. The thoughts and vibrant video collages of Nam June Paik have inspired my art. Video art itself whispered encouragement for me to embark on a life-changing visit to Japan.

This show feels like a diary.


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"I don't know. Of all the guys and girls I 've been to bed with, he's the worst,"


From the back we can see that the interviewer, Jean Parr, has blonde puffy hair. Her arm is in a sling..Before her is a table with a can of Pepsi on it. Behind the table is John  Wojowicz, who wears orange coveralls. The two are in jail. Jean asks another question.

   "So... you robbed a bank and ended up in jail because you wanted to pay for your lover's sex change operation. And yet, you are against surgery for transexuals. Why did you do all of this?"

"Because I love her." John says this with the sincerity of a man who thinks about love first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

John's unsuccessful bank robbery took place on  August 22, 1972. FBI agents killed the friend who was his accomplice. John was given a 15 year prison sentence.

 John's fateful day became the basis of a Hollywood movie called Dog Day Afternoon. Both the actual event and Dog Day Afternoon are featured in Third Memory, a two channel video work by Pierre Huyghe.  Third Memory moved me emotionally. The piece's intelligence is entertaining.. There is something indescribable about it.

However, Third Memory's  insights into culture can be described. American gun culture is plainly presented, yet not belabored. American patriotism is shown, but with restraint. In a news clip John defiantly yells,"We're the real Americans!" to the army of police officers surrounding the bank.

The culture of John and his lover are referenced continually, but always as background. John happily describes his wedding. "He picked the most expensive dress he could find-600 bucks. He wanted to show off to all the butches and I wore my medals to show off to all of the queens."

John gave the money he received from the movie to his lover who then had a castration, several operations on her vagina, work done on her Adam's apple and boob jobs."I'm a perfectionist." she says. Later she says she is often suicidal and has been clinically dead more than once.

The popular culture of the times is omnipresent. The day of the robbery, John went to 42nd Street to see The Godfather. In a postmodern twist, Al Pacino and John Cazale,.who were both in The Godfather also starred in Dog Day Afternoon.

   Third Memory features one large video installation as well as a short video and numerous magazine and newspaper enlargements.The fonts, the advertisements and layout are familiar yet "different". There are no tatttoos, no piercings. The men use hair oil and wear white T-shirts. The photographs are grainy black and white:Tri-X film, most likely.

    Third Memory also features a television appearance by Elizabeth Eden, the person who inspired the robbery, also being interviewed by Jean Parr. The show is a low tech, low budget version of Oprah. A wooden platform holds a dozen guests seated on folding chairs. The video graphics are gaudy and the show's theme is a cheesy version of George Benson's Breezin'. Jean Parr  alternates between being maternal and predatory.

   The construction of Third Memory and the source material within it  jump from history to romance to comedy, sometimes all at once:"We cut Nixon off. He got knocked off national TV by a gay bank robber," John boasts at one point. 

   The two channel installation features John, freed from jail and well-dressed, re-enacting the crime with actors. The museum guide's accompanying piece states the piece is about memory. Certainly memory is a major component. But Third Memory's depiction of humanity is what I remember most.

 

"The cop blows a hole in the ground in front of me. Says he'll shoot me if I take one more step,"John tells the camera,"I keep walking."

 

    Jean Parr asks John why he fell in love with Eve. He smiles and says, "My wife always asks me that question." John's  eyes show glimpses of something we rarely see. His smile is as enigmatic as Mona Lisa's.

 

 

 

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The museumspeak in this exhibition is well crafted and insightful; the Pompidou influence, most likely. "Music plus sculpture equals melody," says a sign by a piece by Valerie Export. There is a fine line between the poetic and the absurd when it comes to writing about art. The ultimate tragedy is when the style is copied or, worse, blindly believed. As much as I like Paik, his collaboration with Charlotte Moorman about the horrors of Guadalcanal is nonsense and no amount of museumspeak will convince me otherwise.

Perhaps I feel defensive because I have made video art. I have had thousands of conversations with artists, video and otherwise. Usually the conversations are about the business of art. Gossip is common.The few artists who are eloquent  know how easily certain words and phrases lend themselves to self-parody....Myth and memory", "identity", "explore issues of______", "social and political", "confronts and challenges". Granted, those artists, curators and critics  master museumspeak do well when it comes to grant applications. The crowd here on this Friday night seems like a typical art crowd.I could be wrong, but it feels like they are here for a sort of enlightened entertainment. I don't recall ever being in a museum or gallery where a heated debate about art was going on.

 

 It was in this same space, several years ago, that I saw a show on Singaporean art in the Sixties. It was painful for many reasons. In a notebook somewhere I have the exact wording, but the show displayed a newspaper clipping of a government official saying something like "we should not encourage escapism."

 Is this show "escapism?

Or is it another  example of how Singapore  flaunts its wealth, its "intellectual capital?".

 

John Cage makes an appearance in the show, tells a short story. Before its conclusion, the father figure of contemporary art takes off his glasses and leans towards the camera to deliver the punchline." Your mother is right," Cage says," even when she is wrong."

 

Some of the videos on display are "black and white", a misleading term as the imagery within them is actually composed of soft shapes, all in various shades of gray.

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There is a piece I have not seen before. I am jealous.

 

 Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Two Planets takes us out to the Thai countryside where local farmers come face to face with four masterpieces of French impressionism: Millet’s The Gleaners, Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass, Renoir’s Ball at Le Moulin de la Galette and Van Gogh’s The Siesta. Seated on the ground before the framed reproductions, the farmers shared candid comments on the paintings according to their own perspective, recognising these paintings in their primary signification as an image without the preconceptions of ‘art’: “If you look at the painting closely, you’ll see they take care of their feet better than their faces.” “Her face is so fresh like white chicken droppings” are examples of how they feel about the Western masterpieces. Their spontaneous and ingenuous responses give rise to many a comical situation and lay bare the gap between the two worlds – their own and that of Western art, whose historical and cultural processes are often assumed to be universal.

text from the Activity Book produced by Singapore Art Museum to accompany the selection of video works from the Centre Pompidou and Singapore Art Museum Collections

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I am in the present.

Yet, I cannot help but think of things which have changed or are now outdated: patchbays, decks, U-matic, Hi-8, 3/4 inch, VHS, Beta. Does anyone know what a time-code generator is? The darkened rooms of the exhibition are full of undocumented technical battles and victories that the "pulldown artists' of today will never have to experience.. The  stripes used as identification for this exhibition  are based on the 'bars' of 'bars and tone', the means by which colors and sound levels were standardized..Bars and tone were found at the beginning of every videotape.

 Video art's ability to record  the sights sand sounds of intimacy  was a monumental development. Now, in the age of the internet, it is commonplace, used in everything from business meetings to Chatroulette, where intimacy can be depersonalized and anonymous.

The show is a testament towards individualism and a snapshot of pre-computer, pre-internet art.

To visit the historical collection of pieces at SAM is to return to a time when there was something like a shared, naive hope that a fresh language could be created. The language would be free of the inefficiencies of its artistic predecessors and full of rich new words and moments that would allow for deep exchanges and meanings.

Video. It is a Latin word, a beautiful word.. It translates as I see. Video, video,  video; the word suggests the sound of something flowing. 




















































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