Mediamatic Magazine 3#4 Willem Velthoven 1 Jan 1989

In Memoriam Videokunst

An Instructive Exhibition

Video Art has passed on. It will be laid to rest in the next few months by the Cardinal of the West German faithful, DR. WULF HERZOGENRATH, assisted by that relative novice DR. EDITH DECKER. The procession started in Cologne and will pass the temples in Berlin and Zurich. The company that gathered to bid the cortege farewell was an international rag-bag of priests, hermeneuticians, altar boys, oracles, sacristans, people in their Sunday best and a single heretic. And, of course, a flock of saints, a mere fifty of whom had been summoned by the Cardinal and his assistant; they were to provide the relics to be transported behind rippling banners bearing the escutcheons of the most important purveyors of indulgences DUMONT and SONY. The public (22.000 of them) thronged and gazed in astonishment at the wondrous display of colour.



After exhaustive preparations and at great expense, it was finally and definitely proved on 16 March of this year that video simply cannot be handled as a criterion within fine art practice anymore. The proof of the failure of the concept video art was supplied by means of a forbidden combination of two classic scientific methods: empirical research and indirect demonstration. In plain English that means a practical experiment and an argument which starts with the opposite of the intended conclusion. Every schoolkid who takes science knows that this combination will simply result in a failed experiment and that in principle you cannot prove that something is impossible that way. However, it's more complicated than that.
Of course HERZOGENRATH and DECKER did not organize the exhibition Videoskulptur, Retrospektiu und Aktuell 1963 -1989 simply in order to explode the myth of video art or video sculpture for once and for all. They did it so as to show its specific possibilities and qualities (see the ad in MM 3-2) by means of a survey of the history and contemporary highpoints of this 'art discipline'. The KOLNISCHER KUNSTVEREIN and the DUMONT KUNSTHALLE were amongst the spaces made available to them. What's more they had a budget that was unusually generous for this kind of event including liberal quantities of equipment from SONY.
The selecting of work was reasonably free; every artist is more than happy to participate in an exhibition of this scale and the prestige of organization and curators is sufficient to attract a queue of sponsors. What's more there is too little commercial interest to involve the usual corruption of conditional sales by gallery directors and collectors.
HERZOGENRATH has a formidable reputation as an organizer of exhibitions: he is the director of the KOLNISCHER KUNSTVEREIN, has collaborated on various DOCUMENTAS and has just been appointed Hauptkustos at the NATIONAL GALERIE in Berlin. He has many video exhibitions to his name. EDITH DECKER is also certainly not just anybody; she has written an excellent thesis on NAM JUNE PAIK and collaborated on the last SKULPTUR PROJECTE MUNSTER.
The qualities of both organizers and the many outstanding artists plus the superb conditions ensure that this enterprise was more than just a failed experiment on a small scale. The organizers have not attempted to provide an indirect demonstration, they are beyond reproach. And that's why the result may still yield conclusions.

The Exhibition

Just as the title indicates, Videoskulptur 1963-1989 Retrospektiv und Aktuell divides into two parts. There was a survey in the KÖLNISCHER KUNSTVEREIN covering the early developments of three-dimensional video work: from PAIK and VOSTELL to VIOLA, SERVAAS, GRAF + ZYX. Videoskulptur seems to encompass video installations but not single channel works (tapes). That also applied to the DUMONT KUNSTHALLE: a confrontation of about 20 works from the Eighties.


The exhibition in the KUNSTVEREIN was a particularly successful historical survey. It began with a group of works from the 60s which approached the institution of television from a more or less political perspective: VOSTELL'S Heuschrecken, a couple of Zen TVs by PAIK, LES LEVINE'S Iris, DOUGLAS DAVIS' Images from the Present Tense and TV Mirror by WOLF KAHLEN. In the rest of the building were objects and installations that maintained a more structural relation with the television set, closed circuits and video as material.
PETER CAMPUS' Interface is a good example of this: the viewer is shocked by the confrontation a life-size video projection of himself through a large plate of glass in which he also sees himself mirrored. The combination of the two more or less coinciding, transparent doppelgängers robs both of any sense of naturalness. The gaze of the other and the actual reflection repel and attract.
Other highpoints of this part of the exhibition include one of BRUCE NAUMANN'S Video Corridors, in which he creates a similar situation in time, and BILL VIOLA'S He Weeps for You, an installation where the camera's microscopic gaze (far less that of the author than in his other work) is directed at the viewer through an occasionally falling drop of water. ROOS THEUWS' Forma lucis, a Wall Piece from 1988 was extremely beautiful. She experiments aesthetically with the coloured electronic light of the cathode ray tube which is filtered and reflected by an optical system of matt glass and mirror and placed in a box that is long past the stage of getting rid of the monitor.
It is interesting that this work can be compared with PAIK'S objects, a couple of spaces previously. In fact PAIK makes a completely concept-based statement, a FLUXUS joke, where the wrecked television is merely the means of transport. As a souvenir you can
always perform his action on your own telly with a simple pair of nail scissors (BATMAN says be sure to unplug the set first). Right from that moment (when PAIK did it) we see a magnificent flow of art trying to get free of the object. Hence the oldest works in the exhibition do not need to be saved, they can just be reconstructed with modern equipment. Of course video was the ideal material (because it was immaterial) in the Seventies, when the striving for pure concept -based values in art experienced its apogee and avant-garde didn’t give a shit about money and commerce.
ROOS THEUWS' Forma Lucis is a good representative work of the development of the Eighties; the famished art world pounced on the new painting and then helped itself to // fairly big but not too big; well crafted but not too crafted that they make you think that the work is a work of craftmanship; they are made of nice materials but
they are not so nice that they make you think it is about the material; they look a little like paintings and they look a little like sculptures, but they are not really categorisable as either one of those things - they geneally sell for a fair lot of money. (STUART MORGAN during Museumjournaal's Do They Write like Mandarins//? symposion, KUNSTRAI, Amsterdam 1988).THEUWS completes this voltage curve perfectly.
Forma Lucis also fits with the older work, not that it's oldfashioned but because, through the artist's purely aesthetic approach, one of the medium's qualities is once more taken as subject matter. The KUNSTVEREIN was not specifically labelled Retrospektiv. All the work from the period '63 -'80 seemed to have been lumped together because medium and material form a theme. This creates an interesting and coherent exhibition.
At first the historical relationship acts as a cohesive force and it's excellent to see all those milestones of early video together. A collection of relics of high curiosity value, it really hits when you first enter: Gosh! So is that really PAIK'S broken TV.... Great! You are amazed that DOUGLAS DAVIS still takes the trouble to turn a television to the wall (of course he didn't actually have to do it himself), and then you realize that indeed it still works.
After a while more and more connections are made and the works could be grouped in a big circle to exchange jokes, aphorisms, criticism, poems, analytical discussion and amazement. About their own existence, the viewer's, time and the electronic media. On the one hand the works transcend their medium: a quality that every (good)art work has, on the other hand they constantly return to it, so that the set-up is more than a trivial historical surveyor a sample sheet of the specific possibilities and qualities of Videoskulptur.


But everything goes haywire in the DUMONT KUNSTHALLE. This giant factory hall contained a rich collection of good works from a choice selection of international artists.
Surrounding a large open space with installations by SCHWARZ, LAFONTAINE, GUNTHER, KIESSLING, ABRAMOVIC, KUBOTA, YOM BRUCH, PAIK, STUDIO AZURRO and BIRNBAUM were about ten cubicles which had been knocked together, more or less sealed off, each containing one or two works. There really isn't much point in
mentioning names; the above list will be enough for anyone at all informed about the production in this area over the last ten years. Eleven people who were interesting enough in themselves but why did they have to be shoved into a space like that? And what did they have in common? Simply the fact that they all use television sets! And then what? Are there formal similarities? No. Similar content? No. Critical, thematic, theoretical, geographic, sexual, commercial similarities or those of friendship, nationality, race or generation? No, no, no!!! The only reason to lump them all together is that they all use television sets. The things that the artists are actually involved with are of an extraordinary diverse nature. They vary from BIRNBAUM'S extremely personal observations of her environment, via LAFONTAINE'S dramatic themes of primal urges to YOM BRUCH'S almost tangible Russian television bulges. From ABRAMOVIC'S mystical ecstacy to KIESSLING'S ingenious mobile. Of course art works always include some statement about their medium/material. But that's certainly not been the most important thing in the production of the last few years. The works find their meaning in extremely diverse contexts. That meaning is denied or at any rate ignored by selecting them for an exhibition with Videoskulptur as its only criterion (plus Quality of course ...); as I stated above an art work always transcends its material, that's what makes it an art work; this exhibition reduces the works to pure material. Hence they are affected by a trivial educative set-up: Look at all the wonderful things an artist can do with video!
The space in Cologne (where it was practically impossible to see the works separately without wearing blinkers and disconnecting your memory) made it crystal-clear how this approach suppresses the actual meaning of the works.
Perhaps it would have been better to show them in separate locations, either individually or in small groups (of course it's possible to create some meaningful combinations within the whole assortment). So that the work could have been presented as well as possible in exhibition terms. The installations and objects would have worked well in the space (of course nothing really worked in the factory hall). The sound should have been directly audible and not by means of those ingenious infra-red telephone receivers (experiencing
the sound in the space is part of the work). And the various works could have then been shown on their own terms.
But, laying aside all technical and financial problems, the exhibition would have had just as little cohesion of content. At the very most the superfluity and meaninglessness of this prefabricated collection'would have been less striking. And it would have been
better to have fulfilled its original objective: making the medium's specific possibilities and qualities accessible to a broad audience.
Maybe the exhibition in the DUMONT KUNSTHALLE does satisfy this educative criterion. However, the question is whether there really is any point in showing the above-mentioned possibilities and qualities to a broad public at the point when the work's content has less and less to do with the medium's possibilities. Indeed, is the public actually interested in the medium per se? Isn't it confusing presenting a work under a title that has little to do with that work's meaning, especially for a general audience?
I think that most of the works will remain fairly inaccessible to the layman who has no knowledge of their artistic context. If this context is not Videoskulptur then our layman won't make much progress with this kind of presentation. Of course, this does not detract from the qualities of the Retrospektiv. Plus the Aktuell part is the clearest demonstration of the uselessness of the concept of Video Art as a criterion for art practice that I have ever seen. It was extremely enlightening. This exhibition's failure must be down to the recipe; the ingredients, the kitchen and the cooks were all first class. I hope that the international family of Video Art will profit from the lesson.

translation ANNIE WRIGHT