For most of the history of art, the viewer has been in charge of the viewing experience. When painting and sculpture were the dominant media, it was a given that the viewer decided how long to look at a work of art. Then video killed the painting star.
As has been noted ad absurdum since the most recent Documenta in Kassel, Germany, video art demands, and sometime steals, time from the viewer. Realizing that not all of us want to spend all of our art-viewing lives looking at video, many artists are making work that toys with the concept of time. The best example is the slow-motion work of Bill Viola, who mixes classic art references, a nod to the way we view painting and a gentle tweak of video art. Viola is not alone; consider a trio of artists recently featured in solo shows: British bad girl Gillian Wearing at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the rarely seen Angeleno artist George Stone at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery and under-appreciated Washingtonian Brandon Morse at the Watkins Gallery at American University.
Wearing, recently the subject of a retrospective that started at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and moved on to the Philadelphia ICA, plays with time by making us feel uncomfortable. Before viewing Wearing's work, I had never given much thought to how many muscles in the face go into wincing. After seeing this show, I discovered that the wincing muscles are concentrated in the upper cheek area. Wearing's gimmick of putting people in awkward situations and then enjoying it has its roots in the rarely artistically celebrated practice of school-yard bullying. Sixty Minute Silence is a perfect example: Wearing has a bunch of cops stand in place for 60 minutes and videotapes it. Then she projects it on the wall of an art gallery and we are meant to look at people feel uncomfortable and fed up with having to stand in place for an hour.
It is unclear to me why this is something I should enjoy viewing. I suppose that's part of the point -- Wearing doesn't intend for me to enjoy looking at Sixty Minute Silence, she intends for me to have an experience roughly similar to that the cops had as they stood for her. I am meant to be aware of the cops being on the spot when it is usually us that is on the spot around cops. In those terms, the work succeeds. But why must being aware of the slow passage of time be something so painful and dull? Tedium is a thin idea around which to build a work of art.
I much prefer the work of Stone and Morse, two lesser-known artists who make work that is as smart as it is engaging. Instead of making time an oppressive or uncomfortable force in their work, they play with the way we experience the passage of time. Both artists create work that encourages the viewer to want to discover new ways of experiencing time instead of forcing them to participate, as Wearing does.
Stone recently received a mid-career survey at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. It has been 10 years since Stone's work was exhibited outside California. Hopefully this show and the excellent catalogue put together by curator Carole Ann Klonarides will help change that.
Many of the works in the Stone show started by allowing the viewer to become comfortable. At first glance, In the Line of Fire (Civilized, Informed, Entertained) looks like a dry bit of video art. On a television screen, a video camera travels slowly around a bland backdrop, finally reaches a man's body, slowly travels up his body, finally reaching a gun pointed right at the viewer. Bang. Behind us, we see smoke emerge out of a hole in a black plastic canvas. Stone's installation is the closest most of us will come to being gunned down. And in a perversion of the survival instinct, I stood there and waited several minutes for it to happen again.
Eventually happy with the number of times I'd been shot at, I wandered across the gallery to encounter half a dozen or so body bags lying on the floor. Each appeared to have a person in it, lying in a different, contorted position. Bent legs and torqued torsos were twisted in ways the body would find comfortable only after it had passed into corpsehood. Well, that's sorta cool, I thought to myself, but nothing super exceptional. In fact this work, titled unknown, unwanted, unconscious, untitled, seems a little dead, ha ha. Then the corpses began to move. As with In the Line of Fire, I realized I had again been drawn in and then smacked with the art equivalent of a blackjack. When the corpses went back to being dead, I stood waiting for them to move again. And again. In Stone's work, my pace through an art gallery, the patient way in which I'm accustomed to allowing art to reveal itself to me over time, is turned into a trick that is used to engage me.
While Stone's best work makes me aware I'm loving anticipation even as I'm experiencing it, Washington-based artist Brandon Morse's work plays with time so subtly that it takes a full walk through the gallery before I grow wise to the game. In the works on view at American University's Watkins Gallery, Morse mixed computer-generated animation with sculptural installation.
One work in Morse's show, From Here to There, includes a computerized animation of a slowly changing digital "landscape." While the scene slowly changes, the screen moves even more slowly on a track on a wall. In fact, I didn't even notice that the screen was moving until I looked away to check out a floor projection made to fit within two wooden boxes, 2 Ways in Which Things Come Apart.
2 Ways consists of computer-generated animation of evolving linear semi-structures; picture how Tron might have looked had it been programmed in Logo, the old Apple II programming language. I didn't realize that 2 Ways was evolving and changing until I looked back at From Here to There and saw that it wasn't where I had left it, that it had actually moved a foot or two down the wall while I was looking at the floor piece.
Three of the four works in show all changed slowly in different ways. To move from one to the other was to see something slightly different each time, sort of like how your eye discovers new things as it wanders over a painting. The Morse show created a strange time suspension chamber where everything was so slowed down that visuals felt like they had to struggle through quicksand to make it from my eye to my brain.
As James Gleick noted in his recent book Faster, the pace of life around us is steadily increasing. Taking time out from the speedy life is a great luxury, one that should be enjoyed. Both Morse and Stone make work that enhances that enjoyment in a most delicious way.
"Gillian Wearing: Mass Observation," Sept. 4-Dec. 14, 2003, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 118 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104
"George Stone: Probabilities," Sept. 9-Nov. 16, 2003, at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4804 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. 90027
"Occlusion, New Work by Brandon Morse," Nov. 3-25, 2003, at the Watkins Gallery, American University, 440 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016