Noted abstract expressionist and color field painter Barnett Newman once said, “Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting.” You have to wonder what Newman would have made of Videosphere: A New Generation, currently on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It’s an expansive exhibition of time-based media—film, video, sound, and computer technologies in various combinations—that has transformed the second floor of the museum into something of a funhouse environment, with a maze of darkened rooms and arrows pointing the way through, and no paintings in sight.
Curator Holly E. Hughes organized Videosphere: A New Generation using works drawn entirely from the museum’s collection, including eighteen recent acquisitions never before seen. Given that time-based media makes certain demands on a gallery—it takes lots of space and often requires a darkened environment—it’s hard to say when and under what circumstances these works will be exhibited again. Certainly they will not be shown in this concentration for some time. The full exhibition integrates work throughout the entire gallery, twenty-four established and emerging artists in all, ranging from the absurd (Brody Condon’s floating, twitching Elvis figures) to the sublime (Bill Viola’s mesmerizing The Messenger).
The single common denominator among these artists is that they work in new media; there’s no unifying theme or overarching intent. Some of the works are rooted in traditions of painterly abstraction; some involve narrative; some are performance documentations. There are sculptures, installations, conceptual pieces, and documentaries in a myriad of formats. Most of the work in the exhibition was produced in the latter part of the last decade. For me, several works stood out—in part for their epic scale.
Bill Viola’s The Messenger was the first video installation the museum purchased (in 1996), and it stands as one of the most compelling works in the entire collection. Viola creates meditative high-tech ruminations on such elemental matters as birth, death, rebirth, natural elements, and life’s cycles. The Messenger is a large-scale wall projection in which a green nude figure materializes in extreme slow motion amidst a black void with scattered points of light. It looks a bit like a slowmo transporter scene from Star Trek until (depending on when you happen to enter the installation) it gradually becomes apparent a man is rising from the blackness of some unspecified body of water. Agonizingly slowly he breaks the surface and takes several long breaths (along with viewers) before sinking into the depths again. Ambient sound is amped up to the level of a distant jet roar, and when the figure breathes it’s like a delayed sonic boom. Originally commissioned by the Anglican Chaplaincy of England’s Durham Cathedral, the work evokes spirituality, tapping into universal human themes, and eliciting diverse responses in different people.
Universality of another kind collides with pop culture in the work of Phil Collins (no, not that Phil Collins, the Glasgow-based artist) who is represented by a specially constructed environment comprised of three open-front acoustic alcoves. Collins is apparently a fan of the 1980s alternative rock band, the Smiths. In the native language of three cities—Bogota, Istanbul, and Jakarta—each of the three videos translates to the name of the Smiths’ 1987 compilation album The World Won’t Listen. Collins travels around the world finding Smiths fans anxious to perform karaoke versions of Smiths songs while posed in front of blatantly fake scenic backdrops. The videos are synched so that gallery viewers moving from alcove to alcove hear different singers attempting the same song. What is striking about this project—besides the universality of Smith fandom and of heartfelt bad singing—is its dark humor, underscored by the ever-melancholic drone of Morrissey and Co.
A work that deals in a different way with globalization is London-based artist Isaac Julien’s massive film installation WESTERN UNION: Small Boats. Employing an unconventional narrative structure, the work depicts the perilous immigrant exodus from the African country of Liberia to the Italian island of Sicily. many dying along the way, as they flee Libyan unrest. It’s a humanitarian nightmare in which the human dimensions are often lost to Westerners amidst the statistics. Julien’s ambitious work places viewers in the role of onlooker one moment, and participant the next. It’s a poignant and hauntingly beautiful commentary on an ongoing tragedy. Devote the full nineteen minutes it takes to see the entire work, and try to catch it from the start.
You can make time up on Jennifer Steinkamp’s Dervish, a digitally created twisting tree projection, and Michael Snow’s excruciatingly boring flapping window curtain projection, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids). Each can be fully grasped in less than ten seconds. To be fair, both can be meditative (or sleep inducing) if you have time, but for my contemplative dollar, I’ll take Jaye Rhee’s metaphoricTear. Rhee, dressed in black and videotaped from above, tenaciously rips her way little by little down the center of white fabric that stretches across four extremely wide video monitors. Working counter intuitively right to left, Rhee’s ordeal personifies persistence against life’s obstacles. Orit Raff’s continuously evolving floor projection Untitled (bread/forgive/salt/dream) is another contemplative work that also succeeds conceptually. It’s one of many that necessitate reading the informative wall text to fully appreciate. As is James Drake’s hypnotic Tongue-cut Sparrows, a three-screen video installation that artfully documents women using homemade sign language to communicate from the street with prisoners through jailhouse windows.
Two works are each in their own way notably whimsical. Peter Sarkisian’s Extruded Video Engine #5 is a roughly circular, glowing, vacuum-formed wall relief with brightly colored rear-projected gears and pistons that merges video with sculpture. The fanciful machine soundtrack adds to the overall cartoonish effect. Humor of a darker sort is provided by João Onofre, who tap dances off a bus, down several city blocks, and onto a subway, wearing a blazer and grotesque rubber monster mask. The infectious clickety-clack of tap shoes is the only soundtrack accompanying the expressions of passersby, whose reactions seem divided between bemusement and indifference.
There are of course too many works to mention individually. All—including those by Tony Oursler, Bruce Nauman, Sarah Morris, and Buffalo’s own Cory Arcangel—testify to the museum’s impressive holdings in this developing art form. As Barnet Newman might say in a more conciliatory moment,Videosphere: A New Generation is what you zip through when moving forward into the twenty-first century.
Bruce Adams is a WNY-based artist, educator, and writer.