Art in Motion

by Mark Calderwood

If anywhere deserves the overused soubriquet ‘city of light,’ it is surely Venice. The renaissance republic bathes in a shimmer of light on water that the greatest artists of history have striven to capture, in paintings that glow with sumptuous colour and floating light.

But centuries after Titian and Turner, art at Venice is again made of light, quite literally. At the 53rd Venice Biennale, the premier international survey of contemporary art, video art seemed to flicker at every turn. With screen-based works from 77 participant nations exhibited in historic venues across the city, Venice bathed in the lambent sheen of the moving image. Once an artistic pariah, video had taken centre stage at the world’s most prestigious art event.

Video is now one of the most widespread genres in contemporary art, now such a mainstream practice it is easy to forget that video was once a ticket to professional obscurity. Video-based art has earned acceptance in even the most conservative cultural circles, from the staid genre of portraiture to the Blake Prize for religious art.

Usually considered ‘new’ media alongside other forms of technology-driven art, video art is increasingly recognised as having come of age in the private market, avidly sought after by individual collectors.

Video has not always enjoyed such high regard. Indeed, its short history has been a somewhat  chequered one. Although unwieldy and limited to a single analogue channel, the portable video technology introduced in the turbulent 1960s was seized upon by avant-garde artists as the perfect tool to articulate their outraged rejection of social convention and traditional ways of making art. The resulting underground art tended to be jarring if not outright incomprehensible, even to critics: the public simply recoiled at the shock of the new. Video quickly found itself relegated to the outré fringes of modern art.

It was only in the 1990s, when pioneering artists such as Bill Viola began to infuse video with influences from canonical art, that video began to gain a broader audience. In works such as the silent, mesmerising video painting The Quintet of the Astonished (2000)- inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s sixteenth-century painting of Christ’s executioners- Viola imbued the hyper-real detail of high-resolution plasma projection with the lucent clarity of medieval religious art. Its tormented figures draw the same reflexive response from the viewer as would a painting on panel, only stretched to the point of breathlessness with extreme slow motion playback.

By focusing on the emotion behind the screen, Viola redefined the ground for video art. Able to acknowledge its art-historical heritage, artists began to see video as a medium rather than a message, one that uniquely drew attention to light and time- the fundamental qualities of the moving image.

With characteristically less narrative engagement than in cinema, video art allows us to come in and out of the work in our own time, to explore the possibilities held in a poised span of time, or simply appreciate our space and bodies anew.  The aim is not to overwhelm, but to enfold and transport the beholder beyond their everyday experience.

At the same time the art has changed, we have become increasingly involved with ever more intricate electronic media on a day to day basis. With the moving image saturating every aspect of our technology-driven lives from tablet screens to smart phones, we have come to expect a new level of engagement and sophistication from video media.

And Australian artists are embracing all that the medium can offer, and pushing it in unexpected directions. Possessed of a unique asethetic and mise en scene that responds to the remarkable visual literacy of its audiences, Australian video art is richly layered yet broadly accessible.

Sydney-based Shaun Gladwell, selected as Australia’s offical representative to the 53rd Biennale, typifies a new generation of Australian artists forging an new kind of art, placing formidable technology effortlessly at the service of a clear contemporary vision of the sunburnt country. Gladwell is best known for his poetic work Storm Sequence, a slow-motion, skateboard pirouette above the crashing waves at Bondi as brewing storm-clouds threaten the figure alone against the might of nature

Gladwell was selected not only on the strength of his appearance at the 2007 Biennale, which also featured video works by Daniel von Sturmer and Susan Norrie, but  for his burgeoning reputation being represenatative of the strength of Australian video practice. In addition to the Biennale, Gladwell has participated in international exhibitions like the Yokohama Triennale in 2005 and the 2006 Biennale in Busan, South Korea.

2009 Australian Commissioner Doug Hall, is proud that Gladwell’s selection by the Australia Council’s Visual Arts Board eschews clichés that might mark as Australia as derivative on the world stage. He feels Gladwell to have ‘a uniquely contemporary take on Australia that we are able to share with the world. Hall feels that his video work is really ‘a type of performance art in the landscape, that suggests how we move in this open country.’

That work, Maddestmaximvs- planets and stars is a haunting suite of five interrelated video pieces intertwined with still and sculptural elements, set amid the unforgiving Australian landscape. In Interceptor surf sequence, a black suited figure mounts the speeding replica of Mad Max’s car, every nuance of motion, transformed by slow motion into a formal, if dangerous, ballet.

Caught between blood red dirt and the immense sky, the characters echo the paintings of Sydney Nolan as much as George Miller’s seminal trilogy. Gladwell feels that both influences play an equal role in creating our ideas of the vast continent, but doesn’t believe there is a national aesthetic, pee se. ‘The geography, people and culture of Australia is so incredibly complex,’ he says. ‘How can you reduce 40,000 years to one set of definable characteristics?’

Outside the national pavilion, video also featured in the Australian exhibition Once Removed. Staged in the Ludoteca, a former convent now a recreation centre, the exhibtion is a dialogue on place and displacement- a subject on which young Australian artists are perhaps uniquely aware.

Cant Chant (Wegrewhere) by Vernon Ah Kee contrasts the lucent blue of the ocean with Gladwell’s red desert as Indigenous surfers skim the waves, on surfboards painted with tribal designs- a wry comment on exclusively white surf culture. Fellow exhibitors Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro’s installation Life Span unexpectedly uses video as sculpture, stacking195,774 VHS tapes into a striking, ominous black monolith.

Daniel Crooks is engaged in exploring the technology that nowadays we tend to take for granted. His hypnotic panoramas On Motion and Perspective Part II and Train No.8 present floating, endlessly morphing urban landscapes where time is a tangible but fractured thing. His digital images have an almost organic beauty, frozen moments that move

Describing his work as ‘conversant with time rather than vision’, Crooks using customised tracking hardware and intricate digital editing to mimic the view an optical scanner sees. Crooks himself demurs that his work is new media, feeling instead that what is new is the way he can ‘take apart the illusion of motion, and put it back together according to different rules. It’s a different way of reading the world,’ he grins.

Lynette Wallworth has built a reputation for art at the forefront of immersive video, activated not by point-and-click but by touch. Her Still:Waiting2 depicts a gum tree bathed in evening twilight – until one approaches, when the bobbing, sleepy crimson Corellas filling the tree burst into raucous flight, protesting man’s intrusion into the stillness of nature.

Even more poignant is her installation Evolution of Fearlessness. At a touch on the sensitive screen one of eleven refugee women walks slowly into the light, touching our hand with theirs in a welcoming gesture of trust and leaving us humbled in her resilient presence. Wallworth wants her video works bridge the gaps that keep us apart in our modern, emotionally regmented lives.

‘We can all fall into fear, and we need to see there is place of hope beyond that fear,’ she says. ‘Few of us ever look into the eyes of a stranger, or touch their hand in sympathy, but there is tremendous comfort and strength in that, which video can communicate.’

The intense excitement that whirls about the Venice Biennale naturally piques the interest of collectors at home too, keen to invest their passion dollars in the crème of contemporary art. And while video is clearly front and centre in the public sphere, there is a growing recognition of its artistic and commercial value from the private sector, with many of the top Australian artists represented by prestigious commercial galleries.

Simeon Kronenberg, director of Anna Schwartz Gallery Sydney, is unsurprised that collectors have taken to video with such enthusiasm. ‘Collectors follow where the art goes,’ he insists, ‘and new media is simply where contemporary art is.

‘Artists  are no longer tied to a single practice, but work across different media according to what best communicates the idea. Video is just one part of the palette now available to them. They are drawn to video-based technology because its second nature to them. They grew up with moving images and time-based media as part of their environment.’

In the same way, he says collectors make little distinction between video media or traditional art.

‘Major collectors accept that video is undeniably here to stay,’ Kronenberg says. ‘It has become part of the cultural landscape, as familiar to them as it is to artists, and for much the same reasons.’

Kronenberg denies that video appeals only to younger investors, noting that informed collectors of all ages are interested in artists like Gladwell and Crooks not because they are specifically video artists, but because they are considered leading contemporary artists.

Indeed, Australian Art Collector recently ranked both, along with Ah Kee and video practitioners Daniel von Sturmer, David Rosetzky and Patricia Piccinini among Australia’s 50 most collectible artists.

Kronenberg is resolute that collectors should judge video art ‘exactly the same way you judge any art- in terms of its meaningfulness, and the way it reverberates with the individual. By comparison, other considerations are trivial.’

A well-established profile is usually indicative of an artist’s calibre, and often the key to substantial returns. Gladwell made headlines in 2007 when his poetic Storm Sequence fetched an unprecedented $84, 000 under the hammer at Sotheby’s – the first video artwork to be auctioned in Australia. His later work Pataphysical Man, was sold in 2009 by auction house Deutscher and Hackett for $49, 200. But while some video works do command considerable sums, Kronenberg is quick to dispel the perception that video is out of reach, with many being produced as affordable multiple editions.

Owning art may be a savvy investment, but seasoned collectors are adamant that investing in art isn’t about the money. Art offers rewards every day, in ways that go beyond simple financial return…and with video art, those reward unfold as you watch.

Published Il Tridente, Summer 2009