Beyond Cinema: The Art of Projection 1963-2005

Douglas Gordon: 24 Hour Psycho, 1993. Photo: courtesy of the artist and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Photographer: Christopher Smith. Film stills from Psycho, 1960. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Works from the Flick and Kramlich Collections and others

Curated by Stan Douglas, Christopher Eamon, Gabriele KnapsteinAnd Joachim Jäger

Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin
29 September 2006 – 25 February 2007

By Rosemary Heather

It is hard to imagine that only 30 years ago John Szarkowski’s presentation of William Eggleston’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art could be considered a breakthrough because they were in colour. By separating lens-based imagery from the 19th century notion of fine art to which the black and white photograph had been, up to that point, confined, MOMA – a key player in the creation of the very idea of modern art – expanded the definition of art to include contemporary production, opening the door to, among other things, works in new media. Arguably it is this event, rather than say work done in structural film, that augured the current dominance of video installation in contemporary art: It points to the growing importance of the institution itself. This is especially true of work on video. If Duchamp had critiqued the artwork’s institutional dependence a prescient 90 odd years before, the triumph of video installation as an art form represents its wholesale consolidation; the two cannot be separated.

Functioning as a companion piece to, and update of, the Whitney Museum’s 2002 exhibition about the projected image “Into the light: Image in American art 1964-1977”, Beyond Cinema presents 27 works designated as markers along the road to video’s present supremacy. The focus of both shows is the art form’s basic technical requirement of projection as a stepping off point for the creation of a spatial experience in the gallery, whether perceptual or psychological and usually a combination of the two. Video’s ability to be projected from the rear, as opposed to film’s frontal orientation, adds an extra dimension to this dynamic. The exhibition does an excellent job of showing the different ways that artists have devised to think through the permutations of this possibility.

Edge of a Wood (1999) a ravishing installation by Rodney Graham opens the show, and suggests its emphasis. While early video art was once valued for its anti-aesthetic austerity, Graham’s work has a shimmering painterly lushness. On a two-screen projection, helicopter-mounted searchlights illuminate trees at the edge of the forest to the deafening sound of the chopper’s blades. With this simple but gorgeous update on the genre of landscape painting, Graham implies that art may change in keeping with technological developments but its focus stays the same: the world and the complicated business of how we see it.

Graham’s work creates a threshold for the viewer’s entry into the exhibition – this is especially true due to the enveloping nature of its soundtrack ¬– suggesting that the prevalence of video projection in art is only a reflection of the immersion of our culture in a mediated world. Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour Psycho (1993), is well-served in this context. The artist’s slowing down of Hitchcock’s film to a molasses pace looks today less like a neat trick than a statement of millennial significance: The dream – and the nightmare – of our mediated lives has no beginning or end.

On a lower level of the venue,

Diana Thater: The best space is the deep space, 1998. Courtesy of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles, California, USA. Photographer: Fredrik Nilsen.

encapsulates this idea in a dazzling four-part installation. An image of a white horse and her handlers standing in a ring is seen through the haze of dry ice and a changing array of colored spotlights. Variations of this scene are repeated in two large screen projections and on a monitor placed on the floor: viewers see what the cameras see and see the crew filming this in a shot from behind their backs. As the colored gels change from pink, to yellow to blue, the horse appears and disappears, and on another monitor, alphabet fridge magnets in primary colours spell out the production credits against a white background. The installation acts like an object lesson in the persuasive authority of the image. For all of Thater’s efforts’ to break down the illusion, its powers of mystification remain no less profound.

Another stunning work, Monica Bonvicini’s Destroy She Said (1998), uses repetition and dissonance to fracture the space of filmic artifice. On an angled two-screen projection with the wooden grid of its support sticking out on all sides, the artist presents clips of European film stars, such as Anna Karenna and Monica Vitti, in a variety of fraught cinematic moments. On the audio track we hear a women crying, a phone ringing, a plane traveling overhead, the sounds sometimes in sync with the image but mostly not. When in this montage of distress, a woman shoots a gun, the repertoire of dramatic effects is complete, the artist suggesting that, at least as far as cinema is concerned, the psychological space of femininity is dangerously overwrought.

Toronto artist John Massey’s seminal As the Hammer Strikes (A Partial Illustration) (1982) offers a kind of masculine counterpart to Bonvicini’s work. A three-channel installation in black and white and color, the artist drives a car on the highway in the desolate Canadian winter. As he converses with a hitchhiker he has picked-up, the screens alternate between images of the landscape, the driver and his passenger, and stock footage shots of the things they talk about. Because the hitchhiker speaks with a slight stutter, the conversation is somewhat stilted, and this impression is reinforced by the image montage. When the passenger talks about being at a strip bar and we simultaneously see the image of a stripper on an adjacent screen, it creates a strangely hollow feeling, as if the speaker had no interiority. A little seen example of video projection in its early form, as a critique of mediated subjectivity the work is devastatingly effective.

For Canadians, Beyond Cinema is a watershed for two reasons. Amongst a curatorial team of four, two are from Canada, the artist Stan Douglas and Christopher Eamon, curator of the San Francisco-based Kramlich collection, one of the largest and most important private collections of media art. The duo’s involvement and the strong presence of Canadian artists in the show attests to the leading role Canadians have played in the development of this art form (Douglas’ is represented in the show with his magnificent 1986 work Overture.) A crucial acknowledgement of this contribution, The Art of Projection may also represent a turning point in Canada’s ability – or willingness – to sponsor its artists internationally. Beginning April 1st, 2007, the Harper government has allotted a budget of exactly zero dollars to its missions abroad for the promotion of Canadian culture. This from a Federal government that the Oct 25th Globe and Mail reported was “awash in surplus cash.” Although in Quebec there has been considerable uproar about this disturbing shift in cultural policy, it appears to have gone relatively unnoticed in English Canada. Now is the time is for everyone involved in the arts in Canada to work to reverse this trend. There is more at stake here than the careers of Canadian cultural producers abroad. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that a government so unaccountably hostile to the arts portends a dark future for the country.

This text was originally published in Bordercrossings #101