"Video: Bruce Nauman, Tony Oursler and Sam Taylor-Wood," June 19-Sept. 22, 1998, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street, San Francisco, Cal. 94103.
Congratulations to Robert R. Riley, media arts curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for again turning the museum's smallest exhibition space into the most interesting in the building. The museum constructed a small labyrinth in which to show videotapes by three artists, each arguably from a different "generation" -- Bruce Nauman, Tony Oursler and Sam Taylor-Wood. The tight hallways and bare spaces of the installation served to enhance the psychological intensity of the work.
The show demonstrates the way that video technology has gradually colonized consciousness, spreading from the single-channel video -- the television set, a functioning sculptural object -- to the total environment via multi-channel video projections. This line of progress exemplifies the marriage of video and installation art, a significant example of the blurring of boundaries between formerly distinct mediums.
Three grainy, black-and-white video pieces by Nauman, dating from 1968, represent video's low-tech roots. In Revolving Upside Down, for instance, we see the inverted image of a young Nauman, dressed in T-shirt and jeans, awkwardly balancing on one leg and revolving in his studio. Simultaneously comic and earnest, Stomping in the Studio and Floor/Wall Positions record the artist's careful exploration of real space with his own body in the most rudimentary, abstract way. In this installation, the three boxed video monitors are positioned around the space with similar care.
In an essay accompanying the show, Riley drew special attention to the "ability of the video medium to express emotional or psychological conditions." Though these early Naumans may look like Waiting for Godot today, at the time their context was resolutely untheatrical. As if to cover his bases, Riley included one of Nauman's more obviously expressive recent works, World Peace Day II (Brook's Lips), a close-up of a woman's mouth, heavily lipsticked and smoking a cigarette. She repeats harsh, mantra-like variations on the Naumanesque text, "You talk, I'll listen," in a kind of meditation on communication and disruption.
Oursler has become justly well known for a multimedia sculpture in which videotapes of emoting actors are projected onto cloth dummies or other globe-like screens (submerged in a tank of water, for instance). Though always theatrical and scripted, the astonishing visual strength of this mise en scène tends to deafen the viewer to whatever narrative the artist has actually written into the work.
Three examples are included here. The newest work, Untitled (MPD), abandons narrative potential altogether and registers only visually (though powerfully and movingly so). Rows of talking heads babble and chatter semi-coherently. The phrase "stay out of my world" resounded most clearly. While Oursler's progression to clarity and simplicity is laudable, one hopes that this move doesn't lead to an emptying repetitivity.
Sam Taylor-Wood, the British newcomer who is wife to London superdealer Jay Jopling, creates palpable tension with her video installation Sustaining the Crisis. A pair of wall-sized video projections face each other in the gallery. On one wall is the image of a waif-like woman, topless in a black skirt, striding self-assuredly down the street toward the camera. On the other wall, a distracted, distraught man stares out at the audience.
The only sound is that of their labored breathing -- his panicky and neurotic, hers vigorous. As in classical portraiture, their eyes seem to follow the viewer, focusing their opposing energies of courage and fear, action and hesitation, and confidence and lack thereof onto a mobile and personal focal point. Theoretical playgrounds of inside/outside, public/private, male/female and viewer/viewed are deftly included in a disarmingly simple scenario. The video is the installation, and it works.
TIM GILMAN-SEVCIK is a freelance journalist currently living in New York.