This spring Londoners were given the rare opportunity to watch video art from the cream of the celebrity artist crop in a 24-hour event called "My Generation." The trendy East End Atlantis Gallery was converted from a white-walled museological gallery to cinema-bar-restaurant-chill-out lounge, fitted with a large screen and leather couches, with waiter service for a gourmet menu and Krug Champagne. The lights were dimmed at 6 pm on April 20th, not to be re-illuminated until 6 pm the following day.
Keen name-droppers with good eyesight will have noted the silhouettes of curators such as Max Wigram (most recently famed for the controversial "Apocalypse" exhibition at the Royal Academy), and Guy Brett (curator of last summer's "Forcefields" exhibition at the Hayward Gallery); contemporary gallerists such as Benjamin Rhodes and members of the Victoria Miro Gallery clan (whose artists were well-represented in the event) as well as artists such as Dinos Chapman and Jason Middlebrook. Various art editors were also spotted lurking about, and all only in the time that I was there -- which was not, I confess, the entire 24 hours.
The selection included videos by seminal artists such as Vito Acconci, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sophie Calle, Gillian Wearing, Gilbert & Georges, William Wegman, Douglas Gordon and Vanessa Beecroft -- to name but a few. Quite deliberately, the running order was withheld from the audience, to prevent picking and choosing -- rather, we were exposed to a variety of genres and styles.
As such, by chance, one might have seen Hadrian Pigott's Dream (of wanting wetness and waste), wherein the washing of hands turns into a decidedly erotic affair at the sink. Pigott's oeuvre thematically explores the fetishism of domestic consumer products, and by extension the social implications of trends of taste, consumption and waste. The sensual anthropomorphism of the sink in this piece rather disturbingly denotes the consumerist love affair with material objects. When the hand washer is finished, the camera rests on the sink and bar of soap sitting innocently, but somehow seeming so much more suggestive now, awaiting the next taker.
In a more obvious confrontation of sexuality, involving gender issues and flirting with boundaries of voyeurism, admiring fixation and invasive exposure, is Tracey Moffatt's Heaven (1997). Moffatt takes her video camera to the beaches of her native Australia to capture culturally iconic surfers changing in the parking lot. Distant half-bottoms progress to closer views of bare buttocks, demonstrating the preening, posing machismo of this particularly male dominated sport. By the end of the film we join Moffatt behind the camera as she hones in on two particularly "dude"-ish types, teasing and daring them to show us their bums, genitals, etc., and finally as she snatches concealing towels from them. The provocations and playful humor of Moffatt's work emerged as a highlight among the selection.
Joao Onofre's video Casting (2000) featured a group of young actors in a snaked queue approaching the camera one by one to say the same assigned line. The amateurs' individual personalities are almost painfully evident in each attempt. In distinct contrast, the next video, Candice Breitz's Sharon from her "Soliloquy" series, is a dramatically edited version of the psychosexual thriller Basic Instinct, in which Breitz has removed everything but the moments in which Sharon Stone is vocal, leaving only slightly more than seven minutes. Devoid of context, the slick femme fatale character reveals much about the cultural stereotype from which it has come, and at the same time the odd alienation of one deprived from a space of social belonging. When compared to Casting, the glossy Hollywood polish of an effective actor like Stone seemed a bizarre role model for Onofre's young actors.
Less successful were the "compilation" pieces of Gerard Van der Karp. An entire hour of music and an amalgamation of nature shots that, while played at the same time, had no apparent relationship to each other. The novelty of the graphic superimpositions soon wore thin, leaving one to ponder the meaning of the first three consecutive tracks of Underworld's latest CD, and the other isolated, unmixed tracks seemingly played at random. Though small in number, also shown were examples of that wearying sort of work in which the artist evidently feels that everything that ever happened to him/her is so interesting that it needs to be shared with rest of us, such as Ghazel's Me.
Of course the list goes on. And what a progressive generation we are. Few issues or traditional taboos were ignored: gender, sexuality, homosexuality, the effect of media, voyeurism, stereotypes, role models, antiheroes and even death are explored both in earnest and in irony without consternation.
The unique benefit of "My Generation" in its entirety was its retrospective look at video art of the last 30 years. Artists working in static mediums such as painting and sculpture are regularly grouped together "en masse" in permanent collections and thematic temporary exhibitions. Thus the viewer can compare and single out their favorites, while contemplating their meaning as a group. With video art, though a medium par excellence of its time, this task is more difficult.
Events such as "My Generation" thus become vital to any understanding of contemporary art history. It also successfully brings art out of silent white-walled galleries where well-dressed clerks peer down their aquiline noses, long an aspiration of many artists. One could not help but smile as the audience booed or cheered -- you just don't get that, for example, at MoMA.