Video exhibitions tend to be hit or miss. As someone who makes, curates and writes about video, I have seen my share of mediocre video work. Most recently I wrote about the Memery exhibition at Mass MoCA, in which nine primarily video artists explore Internet memes and memory in visual culture. (A meme is a form or concept that spreads via the Web through email, viral videos or blogs—think of Paris Hilton’s infamous sex tape.) Great concept, but the work seemed dated and wasn’t that interesting or innovative. Sometimes the reverse is true—the work might rock, but the theme or curatorial vision is lacking.
The video exhibition Words at Brand 10 Art Space in Ft. Worth does not miss on either count; it’s smart, funny and entertaining. A theme like “words” might seem simple and obvious; the relationship between text and image is not exactly a new concept. But each of the seven video artists uses written and/or oral text in a myriad of ways to explore how language functions visually and aurally as a tool for mis/communication.
The two headliner artists are Christian Marclay and Diller + Scofidio. Marclay’s Telephone, (1995) features montaged vintage film clips of characters answering, speaking or listening on the telephone. In our age of instant communication, it is interesting to see the film characters in now-extinct phone booths or struggling to dial the tedious rotary phones. The phone and phone booth now function as historical artifacts. Ironically, despite the technological advances, miscommunication still seems prevalent today. Missed calls, missed/mixed messages and poor connections are the bane of every cell phone user.
Diller + Scofidio’s Soft Sell, (1993) addresses the way in which advertisers use words to manipulate the consumer, instilling a deep desire to buy, buy, buy. A close-up, red-lipsticked mouth with perfect teeth entices the viewer by calling out, “Hey you—wanna buy…classified information? Hey you—wanna buy…a rare opportunity? ….a vacation that never ends? ….a left kidney? …a second chance? …..motherly love? …..some culture? ….a vowel?” The female voice purrs seductively, using sex to sell what is illegal and/or unattainable. Picture the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” mouth complete with Botox and plastic surgery—you get the visual. The work reminds me of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms and some of Barbara Kruger’s early 1980s text/image work. However, Diller + Scofidio’s video is less polemic, employing more humor and absurdity.
Text functioning as image is a theme in both Hugh Walton’s and Anna Barham’s work. In Totally Fucked, (2007) Walton froze SpaghettiO’s to spell out the words “Totally Fucked.” In a 20-minute, sped-up reversed edit, we watch a pile of red goop morph into the text. In WTFAYLA, two black-painted hands aggressively stamp out the words of the acronym. Because it is sped up, it took a couple of cycles for me to get the whole phrase: “What the Fuck Are You Looking At.” The performative gestures resemble boxing/punching. I also thought about Bruce Nauman’s early video of stamping in the studio. Walton relies on one-liners, but they are so masterfully produced and clever that they don’t fall flat. In fact, even after I “got” the joke, I kept watching, mesmerized and smiling.
Barham’s black-background-with-white-text video I Slept Spatial Tangle, (2007) resembles a stream-of -consciousness, manic Scrabble board, where words appear, morph and re-form into different words. Unlike regular Scrabble, the game is not fixed, which generates both visual and cognitive confusion in viewers. Like Walton’s WTFAYLA, Barham uses quick edits to establish a visual syntax, but also to create a dynamic rhythm. At first I couldn’t make out specific words, but after watching a few times, words began to emerge—guilt, salient, melting, stealing, team, gleam, mingle, slept, spatial, plant, spent and against. The design patterns of the morphing words also look like puzzle pieces—for an indecipherable message/image.
“Lost in translation” might be an apropos theme for both Rainer Ganahl’s and Mary Reid Kelley’s work. I Hate Karl Marx, (2010) by Ganahl is a grim, futuristic fable set in Berlin in the year 2045. A young woman (portrayed by the artist) screams in Chinese at a bust of Karl Marx, blaming him for Chinese culture and language taking over the globalized world. Translated subtitles of her ranting appear at the bottom of the screen. Gone are the car companies Mercedes & BMW, replaced by Great Wall Motors. Gone are nightclubs and parties, replaced by Chinese party law. In her artist statement, Ganahl provides a disclaimer that she does not hate China. She’s studied Chinese for the past 10+ years. She states that the work is about xenophobia, which is unclear in the video. However, the satire is much more successful due to that lack of clarity.
Mary Reid Kelley’s work You Make Me Iliad, (2010) is brilliant, but difficult to write about due to its many historical and literary references. The video is set in German-occupied Belgium near the end of World War I. The two characters—a German soldier poet and a Belgian prostitute—are both played by the artist in white face/Kabuki-style make-up. Their eyes are covered, giving them a comical, bug-like appearance. Their make-up gives them a Japanese appearance, so the European reference went right over my head. Both characters speak in verse, parodying the iambic pentameter of 18th century epic poems. The video combines both live performance and stop-action animation of some of the text. Besides the arresting costumes and set design, the scripted verse is performed with humor and wit. Some of my favorite lines from various parts of the script include “I’m a whore for metaphor” ; “And one must consider, when writing fiction, the literati’s Heroine addiction” ; “Your meaning is obscure, but far from dull. With tropes and symbols by the shovelful” ; “But their idioms took refuge in my bowels. And as a woman of letters, I shit Vowels.” And the source of the title, “Excuse my Greek; you make me Iliad.” So while I laughed at the double entendre word play, I also felt a sense of poignancy for the characters, which seemed lost in some strange world.
My favorite works in the exhibition are Laurina Paperina’s animated episodes of How to Kill the Artists, (2010). Each short animation features a famous artist who is killed in a way related to his/her artwork. For example, Marcel Duchamp is caught mustaching the Mona Lisa and is bludgeoned to death by the museum security guard. Rebecca Horn is impaled by a unicorn horn. A killer nurse murders Richard Prince. Cai Guo Qiang blows himself up with fireworks. Ed Ruscha dies after throwing a lit cigarette from the top of a gas station, where it immediately explodes into flames. Grenade boy blows up photographer Diane Arbus. If animated bloodshed and gore is too graphic for your sensibility, or you aren’t up on your contemporary artists, then Paperina’s work is not for you. I’m a big fan of her dark humor.
All the videos in the exhibition came from art collector and Texas native Marlene Nathan Meyerson’s personal collection which is focused on contemporary photography and video with an emphasis on “words.” This passion originates from her lifetime love of film and literature. The strength of the Words exhibition resides in Meyerson’s personal and discerning vision.
Multi-media artist Colette Copeland recently relocated to Dallas from Philadelphia. She writes for Afterimage—Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism and Ceramics: Art and Perception Magazine. Her work can be found at www.colettecopeland.com.