Moving Visuals, now on view at the University of Maryland’s David C Driskell Center, brings together seven artists working with video to impart ideas related to both personal and multicultural identities. Those artists include Sanford Biggers, Stephanie Dinkins, Lyle Ashton Harris, Clifford Owens, Jefferson Pinder, Karina Aguilera Skvirsky and Hank Willis Thomas. This exhibition marks the first time the Center has presented a show solely devoted to this time-based medium and presented some unique challenges to the installation team. The dimensions of the works vary in size from small monitors to large-scale projections, one work is displayed in a purpose-built room, and all but one include a soundtrack that incorporates verbal narration or a musical score. The videos are effectively arranged along three sides of the gallery so that each work has enough space to command the viewer’s attention.
The catalog accompanying the show states the premise of the exhibition is to “explore issues of ‘blackness’, e.g. identity, masculinity, power, culture, migration and more.” In that regard, the exhibition builds upon a trend to examine cultural identity and bodily autonomy; other arts organizations throughout the region have also exhibited work addressing this particular topic. Moving Visuals is effective in its mission, particularly in works by Jefferson Pinder and Sanford Biggers that examine Black identity through multiple prisms of life experience. But what I find more interesting in this exhibition, from a philosophical point of view, are the questions this grouping of works raises about the nature of video as a fine-art form, separate from movies or documentaries.
Compared to oil paintings and ink drawings, videography is still in its infancy. Ways of digitally manipulating video images are expanding as fast as computer processing speeds allow. Notably, this exhibition does not include any cutting-edge, computer-generated work; all works utilize video imagery as their source material. Works coalesce around two broad categories: those that document a time-based performance and those whose raison d’être is to explore the images captured. What exactly do I mean by drawing this distinction? Works in the first category all tend to document ‘actors’ moving through space. These works primarily capture those characters’ time-based, ephemeral movements for us to view in the future. For other works, the images displayed exist outside of preconceived notions of time and space. This limited survey dwells on this duality, posing the question when is “video art” a work of art in and of itself and when does it exist primarily as documentation of a performative work?
An examination of the works to distinguish these differing premises is clearly in order. Infinite Tabernacle (Triad), (2018) by Sanford Biggers is an example of poetic, visual imagery divorced from the bounds of time. Three digital screens are arrayed precariously on their sides in the corner of the gallery, with their ends resting on a round carpet. Wooden African sculptures move across the screens, their cultural and tribal identifiers obscured by layers of wax. The sounds of bullets ripping through the figurines jars the viewer’s ears as the figures visually explode off the round tree stump. Limbs fly through the air as sawdust gently wafts across the screens, belying the violence behind the scene. And just as quickly, the statues return to a state of wholeness. The scenario exists as metaphor on many levels—as a screed on colonialism and diatribe against, as the artist notes, police violence. But the visuals depicted and the mechanics of the work are pure poetry: the images flow across the gauze without regard to the seconds ticking by. In this work, the images you see directly create the artistic experience of the work.
Contrast Infinite Tabernacle (Triad) with the work of Jefferson Pinder’s more performative narrative captured in Ben Hur (2015). Filmed on location in the Corcoran Gallery’s central rotunda, the video captures a line of African American men, each positioned in front of a rowing machine. The work takes its inspiration from a scene in the 1959 movie of the same name. In that film, we are witness to slaves in the hold of a vessel forced to row oars to the brink of exhaustion. Pinder’s oarsmen similarly row to exhaustion, staining their white-collar wardrobe with the sweat of their exertion. The sounds of the rowing machines even recall the motion of waves from the original film. Though the work has a great deal to say about the contemporary status of the Black male, it functions more as documentation of an artistic performance than as an extant work of art in and of itself. While the video is skillfully edited, spectators to the live event can be glimpsed in the darkened corners of the gallery. In a similar manner, Pinder places us—the video’s viewers—alongside these spectators, clearly linked to the moment in time that the performers undertook their exertion. Should we not then consider the video as a documentary, capturing the “original” performative artwork?
A second example of this duality can be glimpsed when we consider Pinder’s other work in the exhibition alongside that of Vanessa Jagodinsky. In Overture: Star of Ethiopia (2013), Pinder again references an historical work, in this case W.E.B. DuBois’ 1913 theatrical pageant titled The Star of Ethiopia. In this two channel video, Pinder takes a more narrative approach, contrasting a levitating mythical “veiled woman” as emblematic of a modern Black woman with a “tribe” of warriors moving through the darkness. While it could be said that the tribe members are performing, the work itself is both timeless and lyrically abstract, creating a sense of rich emotion out of the visual poetry that germinates between the two videos. Jagodinsky likewise exudes a feeling of powerful womanhood in Consume, which captures a durational performance she debuted for the exhibition’s opening on September 13, 2018. The video captures the nude Jagodinsky embedded in a dining room table. A black, fibrous material is situated at her waist, alluding to pubic hair which, during the performance, is slowly shorn and placed in bowls of milk situated in front of gallery visitors participating in work’s filming. The work is ripe with questions of personal identity and ways in which the female body is “consumed” in modern society. Yet those issues are raised by the artist’s performance, not the videotape itself. The fact that Jagodinsky chose to display the physical components of the work, setting a “stage” for us as it were in front of the video monitor, underscores the video’s documentary nature of her durational performance. With respect to Jagodinsky, we must ask ourselves is the video itself the work of art or is the performance it captures is where one finds the actual artistry?
Adding a welcome twist to this conundrum are several works in the exhibition that actually feature documentary-style editing in service of artistic narrative. Karina Aguilera Skvirsky’s The Perilous Journey of Maria Rosa Palacios (2016) visualizes the cross-country migratory journey on foot of the artist’s great-grandmother. Visually stunning Andean mountain views are interspersed with one-on-one interviews between the artist and locals she meets on the way. The intermingling of first and third-person narratives is a bit jarring, but demonstrates that documentary-style videography can drive an artistic narrative. Similarly, Black Power (2010) by Lyle Ashton Harris incorporates video shot on location at an outdoor gym in Accra, Ghana. The bodybuilders seem unaware of the cameras in their midst, posing both for themselves in front of mirrors and one another. As an unwitting voyeur, the viewer is forced to consider both aspects of modern masculinity and the transnational nature of cultural norms. That those ideas can be transmitted via a performative narrative underscores a sense of quiet subtly in Harris’ work.
Surveying the work, it begins to feel like my initial premise may be a distinction without difference. While I believe we can perhaps distinguish between work that ponders a specific moment or place and work that presents a more timeless thread, the divisions between these two modes of visual communication still seem hazy. The fact that these distinctions are just beginning to surface, points to the relative newness of video as an art form in and of itself. That sense of newness, along with the speed at which video editing is morphing, means that these questions can only be weighed and perhaps definitively answered in the future through hindsight. The work of artists, such as those exhibited at Moving Visuals, will be crucial for debating those differing viewpoints, and will perhaps even provide answers to questions we have yet to ask.
Moving Visuals is on view at the David C. Driskell Center, located on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park. For more information visit their website here. Note: While the official closing date of the exhibition is November 16, the exhibition will be on view until the end of the month.
Banner Image: The Perilous Journey of Maria Rosa Palacios, 2016; Karina Aguilera Skvirsky; Digital video, 30 minutes and 40 seconds; Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.