Does video art have a place in art fairs? Bustling with attention-seeking spectacle booth after booth, the moving image sits awkwardly between the pageantry of contemporary art. In a situation where the average visitor time spent per-work is surely less than a few seconds, the potential for time-based platform of video art is rarely fulfilled. Art Rotterdam (5-8 February) cared to amend this bad rep with Projections, an integrated yet separated space within the art fair complex dedicated to the video medium. The set-up seemed tailored for the form –the blackened walls and darkened room welcome the illumination of the projections while the dangling speakers delivered concentrated sound to the seated visitor. Still, the sixteen screens had to compete for our glance in the crammed black cube, and some came off better than others.
The piece that utilised the conditions best was Yael Bartana’s Pardes (Orchards, 2015). Situated somewhere between slow cinema and hallucinatory ethnography, Pardes follows the artists’ Israeli friend Michael, partaking in an Ayahuasca ritual under the guidance of a Brazilian shaman, involving tea-drinking with psychedelic results. As Michael collapses to the ground reaching new heights of consciousness, the black-and-white cinematography remains a distant observer for its 45-minute running time. Behind the screen, Bartana placed a smaller monitor, which showed a slightly different take on the event. Set in the immediate aftermath of the ‘trip’, her camera washes away the gleam from the aseptic long takes with its handheld and intrusive close-ups in the dark. Bartana’s presence is felt as she asks her friend to recount his experience, quite deliberately making her a culprit in this designed experience. The smart structure of the installation allows us neither to denounce nor celebrate their recreational tourism, as it cleverly encourages us to question it only to walk us through its own awareness of the issues afterwards.
Despite using the smallest screens, Melanie Gilligan’s four-screen installation also succeeded in standing its ground in the space. With four flat-screen monitors lined up together, 4x exchange / abstraction (2013) presents quick-fire images of advertisements. Playing with the visual lexicon of commodity culture, Gilligan disables its strength by dissolving the images into pixels in a process that reveals their digitality. Relentlessly repeated, the icons and moments drift in and between the monitors – the beginning and end unmarked, the loop structure brought about the capitalist experience of perpetual movement in the market place. Whilst being one of the strongest films, Cécile B. Evans’ Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen (2014) may have sat better on a laptop screen. Borrowing the model of procrastination in the internet era, each cut opens a new tab to create a trace of our meandering thoughts. A digital avatar of Philip Seymour Hoffman guides us through the mortality and (in)existence of the digitally rendered being: a dead girlfriend tagging herself into her boyfriend’s Facebook profiles; a Youtube celebrity speaks of her fears; and Japan’s hologram pop star Hatsune Miku dances to the song ‘Forever Young’. The short life of the browser tab actually succeeds in bringing about melancholy in this quietly thoughtful piece.
Domenico Mangano’s Birds Singing, Sandy Ground (2014) was dwarfed by its own lengthy duration in the darkened space. A wonderfully observant film is about De Wissel, a neighbourhood in Fiesland designed to encourage people with mental health issues to live independent lives. The static camera endearingly captures quiet moments as the villagers go about their daily lives, subtly questioning the penchant for society to institutionalise those who don’t fit the system. Rather romantically, however, the film ends up avoiding providing us with insights into the difficulties that surely emerge every so often. While the quietude of the film is to its advantage for the most part, its tranquil resilience to spectacle encouraged the visitors’ eyes to be distracted by the other goings-on in the darkened room. Similarly, Janis Rafa’s Requiem to a Shipwreck (2014) better suited a cinema. Mostly delivered in one tracking shot, a marching band pays tribute to a boat that has shipwrecked on the coast of Greece. The requiem deserves the respectful silence of its onlookers, which had failed to be accounted for in its installation.
A recurring theme through many of the displayed works was a tendency towards performance. Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation (2013) is a document of an improvised music performance – recorded as it unfolded both for the performers and the camera. Following a score written by composer Pauline Oliveros, six eccentrically dressed performers play elongated tones that stretched until the auditorium lights changed colour to mark adjustments. A haunting and seemingly endless sound poem emerges as the camera meanders between the performers. The physicality of sound is suggested, as the camera tends to focus on the spaces in-between. Gonzalo Lebrija’s Who knows where the time goes (2013) is a black-and-white document of a conceptually-bound performance act by the artist. Using a gun, Lebrija shoots books thrown into the air into pieces to bring together the two stories: the reader and the text; the time of the setting and the time of the shooting; recorded time and the present tense of the installation. Emphasising the theatrics of the act, the explosion of the books is captured in kitschy slow-motion on a vertical screen. The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview (2013-14), which was selected for the Andaz Art Donation 2015, is Nathaniel Mellors’ absurdist humorous take on the art-historical ‘archeology’ of cave art (the Andaz Hotel bought the work and donated it to the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and De Hallen Haarlem). A current-day amateur archeologist encounters a living Neanderthal man and, after questioning his subject at some length, finds himself tricked into a future-ancient lapse of time and sense. The two-man show is presented like a stage play, and I felt its low-key presentation would ultimately function better in a live setting.
In its third annual edition, Projections at (the 16th) Art Rotterdam was remarkably mature in its delivery of presentation considering its nascent years. Perhaps room for improvement is not in the hands of the art fair but the representatives of the galleries – the selection of works should take into account the crowded space of Projections and the relatively short time a visitor would spend. Rather questionably, the jury for the Andaz Art Donation 2015 announced the selected work at the opening of Art Rotterdam, suggesting the works were most probably viewed pre-installation and their effectiveness in the space weren’t considered a part of the criteria for selection. Surely, shouldn’t how the work functions in such spaces be considered essential for video art?
Unexpectedly, the best work in the medium was presented in Galerie Conradi’s booth amid the chaos of the art fair. The gallery embedded a mini-solo exhibition on the works by Cordula Ditz into their small booth. In You Better Run (2013), Ditz extracts different moments of the “helpless female character” encountering terror in classic horror films. She places them on perpetual rotation as if the girls were trapped in a .gif file – except there is no punch-line for their stories, as the ghost never appears. Whilst still embodying the feeling of fear, the video installation became a feminist essay on the recurring tropes of the genre. Usually installed with ten monitors, the single-monitor version at the fair was implemented in response to the limited space but still delivered the punch. Riffing on a similar tone, ohne Titel (Ohnmacht #1-#60, 2013) was a display of sixty inkjet prints all depicting a scene of a female character fainting in a Hollywood film. In the pointed but alluring piece, all the surrounding details are painted black so the women appear to be floating in nothingness. Perhaps it was the focused curation of this particular booth that satisfied my mind overwhelmed from sifting through the madness.