Experimental media: Of kisses, ants, bulls, miniatures and waterfalls

“Experimental media” owns a category of art that might simply be miscellaneous, easily outnumbered by the so-called “plastic arts” of painting, sculpture or crafts that do not incorporate literary or musical media, and that fill the majority of our museums.  Similarly, it might be a qualitative term to describe any art evincing experimentation at its core.  The latter idea seems problematic since any in-the-moment creativity bespeaks the principle anyway:  ius naturale could hold that the barest threshold for new (really, “fine”) art is a navigation around clichés, and an ethic to say something new.  Moreover, “experimental media” poses the same quandary as the term “classical music” so often used here:  it references tentative or tested creation unto a moment in time, even if the common aim is timelessness.

These debates become immediate when major works from the medium get revived.  But their roads to revival can be vastly and even needlessly divergent.  This blog essay, as it turns out, begins in New York City and ends back home in Washington, D.C.

The top floor of MOMA currently is filled with a generous helping of films “by” Andy Warhol.  (Those quotation marks are all at once facetious and necessary.)  As you enter the exhibition, the facing wall reflects his milestone film Sleep, which is as simple as that:  a single 16mm movie camera fixed upon a single person who gets a fair night’s sleep (which is to say, the film runs almost six hours, and nothing but its audience happens – a visual equivalent to John Cage’s 4’33” of silence).  What we might call an experiment has lasted for over three decades, and has made its way into introductory academic surveys of art history.  Similarly we do not call Le sacre du printemps an experiment of Igor Stravinsky, but rather a staple in the “classical” music repertory.

The rest of the Warhol exhibition is two stunning spaces:  first, a grand hall of sorts lined all-around with projections of motion portraits, for which the subjects – Allen Ginsberg among them – were asked to stare into a 16mm movie camera for a bracingly awkward and yet powerfully intimate long stretch of time.  After that hall, the exhibition takes you to a black box that screens Kiss in a loop:  simply a tight shot of a couple deep-kissing, whose effect is to make patrons feel so voyeuristic that their inevitable public guard feels creepily asexual in the face of such privately sticky passion.  (A relative genius of our time, R. Luke DuBois, built upon this concept in a work just last year also called Kiss.)  But enough about Andy and his progeny of sorts; what I really mean to write about is a few floors down.

Just as I arrived at MOMA last weekend, the international press had reported that David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly became part of MOMA's permanent collection, in northern exile from the political nightmare of our mid-Atlantic swampland.  After a few hours making my way down to MOMA’s lower floors, the piece showed up adjacent to Laurie Anderson’s legendary old O Superman hand-gesture silhouettes.  As seen in my pictures here, it plays from a modest cathode-ray tube monitor sitting on the ground, paired with another AIDS passion play.

Much has been written about this incident, much of it hysteria.  The temptation is to write and write and write about it (which starts the clock ticking on my musings here), but the most refreshing things to read or hear are sage reactions from veterans in the field (c.f. political activists), who have seen this sort of thing happen before and who understand, as artists, that curators and their kings are not inherently beneficent merely because they work in the poppy fields of art.  The fact that the Smithsonian Institution (note to journalists:  please stop writing “Institute”) is a quasi-public entity certainly complicates this fact, but not much.  It is both a talking point and a truth that quasi-public museums live or die from private subsidy, to such an extent that public subsidy is nearly symbolic.  The fine arts forever navigate this reality in a free market system of supply and demand, which begins with the principle that artists need to make a living.  Therefore the rules of engagement remain, as ever, this rich possibility that a museum or gallery might secure an artist’s work without encumbrance of institutional weeding, since curators of every scale have a better and more localized sense of patrons wanting to see (and buy) the things that they want to show.  As such, autonomy is part of this market that liberates curators and their kings to be responsive – and this might from time to time result in pulling a piece just as surely as their happy decision to exhibit.  Notably, too, controversy-averse curators regularly rejected A Fire in My Belly, who only now express opportunistic outrage.  I reel at two opposing thoughts:  first, this hypocrisy; and second, our post-Yankee perception that arts exhibition is somehow democratic and governmental, inside our false and mounting assumption that public institutions properly act as gatekeepers, rather than fighters-in-case-of-fire.

And to indulge for a moment about the merits of the Wojnarowicz controversy:  The fact that conservative opposition merely drew more attention to the work is an obvious predestination.  Yet, for every hundred eurekas about that, there was something rather opposite to say that never got said.  You might know that the work incorporates Wojnarowicz’s deliberately self-produced impersonation of Christ, crown of thorns and all.  And of course, there is the famous army of ants crawling across a cross that tends to be the work’s excerpted still.  For the niche group who happens to be the majority in America (i.e., Christians), these are uncommon appearances in contemporary art.  At the same moment that it is exploitative, it is explorative.  Even the most careful theological ruminations can easily dignify the searchings of a suffering man who finds resonance in the passion story.  And it cannot be lost on Christians that Christ found no friendship in the organized church during His life.  Importantly, these are severable issues from any Christian’s professed line-in-the-sand for moral clarity, and for moral justice, that can remain solidly and unapologetically orthodox in the exercise of free religion.  Enforcing that upon society is a whole other matter.

I had never seen the complete work.  As I stood watching its imagery unravel, inevitably I winced for most of the time at its gore, homoeroticism, and BDSM.  (It might be abundantly clear from this blog that I am utterly conventional.)  But I started seeing things that bespoke an alignment with my own work, even where each artist has vastly divergent points of view.  Mixed with the foregoing shock imagery, some footage of Spanish bullfighting began to recur.  (The structure of Wojnarowicz’s video work is raw repetition.)  This blood sport, which is a sacramental element of ancient rituals, mystically complements the surrounding religious metaphors of crucifixion – no less, the army of ants crawling across the cross that could equate to ecumenical corruption.  I had gone into much the same thinking space, well before seeing any of this, through a film called El Toro that was to screen in a few days at The Phillips Collection.  After a generous Best of Show award at the Rosebud Film and Video Festival last year, El Toro proceeded to win the 2011 Experimental Media Prize from Washington Project for the Arts this past Thursday.  The whole surprising episode has proven, in me, a testament to the possibility for art to stimulate ruminations on suffering, ritual, faith, and brutality.  But most importantly – and this is really the point – I drew from this convergence at MOMA a vivid understanding (in this visual art world rather new to me) that no good can come from second-guessing an artist’s intentions.  Wojnarowicz was vilified by conservatives for assaulting religious institutions.  Not so fast.  He might very well have had explicit designs to frontally assault every corner of Christendom.  But the curator didn’t say so, and as far as we know, neither did he.  I propose that if he did, perhaps his work would have failed to survive the test of time, to become this thing we call:  a work of art.  What sadly gets lost amidst arts controversies and the pertaining rage is this general truth:  no matter how shocking the result, an artist’s behavior is tenderness, subtlety, humility.  An artist bears witness to deeply personal searching, and invites us to the catharsis of that suffering.  You might on the other hand run into utterly cynical, profiteering, shock-jock artists from time to time.  Or so you think.  And anywise, if that anomaly should cloud our instincts hence when we confront any new work of art, we become the blind following the blind.  Meanwhile, Artists worthy of that name – whether you call them experimental or classical – walk into the light.

And that light, after all the searching, can no less manifest innocent joy.  Such is the case back home in Washington, at her one reliable institution for the presentation of so-called “experimental media”:   the Black Box on the lower floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  Now that Superflex’s McDonald’s restaurant has continuously flooded and drained a thousand times over, in its wake we have Hans Op de Beeck’s Staging Silence.  Set to a perky minimalist music score by Serge Lacroix, the looping 22-minute black-and-white film is a playful pageant of miniature set pieces constantly entering and exiting from one setting to the next, from street scenes to offices to landscapes.  After a Friday Gallery Talk presented by Manuel de Santaren – an enthusiastic collector of the artist who calls him a true Renaissance man – I saw something rare and beautiful happening in the Black Box, a trace of which you can see in this mobile phone photo.  While the older, dare I say monied and educated, patrons spilled into the Black Box after the Gallery Talk, a busload of school children arrived into the same space and sat in front of the screen.  While the council of elders engaged Staging Silence with their cultivated instincts, the children vocally “oohed” and “aahed” at the playful imagery and the percolating music.  For them, this was not a loathsome visit to a contemporary art museum; rather, it was a helluva time.

This medium of moving images can be an elegant bridge across generations, and it need not be merely the province of broadcaster-fed instant gratification.  Peter Greenaway’s recent Last Supper installation at the Park Avenue Armory, stunning but sadly vilified by most of the New York art establishment, is among the latest entries to his passionate (if not pointlessly academic) argument that cinema is dead.  If nothing else, Greenaway’s evangelism is a healthy shot in the arm for advocating arts literacy:  he envisions a world where the same temperament that finds art lovers able to gaze at paintings for long stretches might match a restlessness against narrative cinema that prefers formalistic films in gallery spaces.  At this juncture, the possibilities seem at once endless and young.  Fiona Tan’s exhibition at the Sackler Gallery, which closed this past Friday, is a paramount example of things to come.  Apart from the Rise and Fall film for which the exhibition was named – a profoundly melancholic juxtaposition of youth and old age – one particular work seemed to me incredibly prophetic.  Provenance was a series of six framed video panels showing Tan’s family and friends going about their daily lives, filmed with the highest production values that we associate with major films, yet drawn at a slow and studied pace that befits portraiture.  Inspired by 17th Century Flemish paintings (that aroused my formative memories visiting the Royal Museum in Brussels), I can hardly call the series “experimental.”  After El Toro, I find myself at an interesting crossroads, between conventional career, documentary film, and this indeterminate other area of experimental media.  Whether these things might still converge, or represent a point of decision, is an exciting world of possibility.

Hans Op de Beeck's "Staging Silence" plays in the Hirshhorn Museum's Black Box continuously during open hours through March 27, 2011.  WPA's 2011 Experimental Media Series continues with five further screenings in Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and Philadelphia through April 7, 2011.  Visit WPA's Web site for further information.