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Video Artists Persuade Viewers to ‘Watch This!’

Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

For centuries, “art” usually meant paintings and sculptures. But today’s artists’ palettes are far broader than marble and oil; the new media genre spans film and video, and its subjects aren’t frozen, but move, dance and speak.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new installation of works from its permanent collection, “Watch This!: New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image,” celebrates artists using video to create new media works.

The selected works span four decades, from a 1969 installation created by artist Nam June Paik to a 2009 piece by Jim Campbell. They represent artists  finding new uses for the tools available to them to express their visions, senior curator John Hanhardt said.

Curators will rotate the pieces in the exhibit with other works in the museum’s permanent collection, but the exhibit itself will be permanent.

The exhibit takes it name from the idea that people should take a step back and look at these pieces and challenge the distinctions between still images and moving ones. For example, Svetlana and Igor Kopystiansky’s 2005 “Yellow Sound” is a video of a record playing. The video plays on a large LCD screen, but at first glance, it looks as though it is just a zoomed-in photograph of a record. The artists have slowed down the video so the changes — the moving of a line here, a small white dot there — are almost imperceptible.

Hanhardt compared the works to commercial video, such as TV and movies.

“Most people use [the video medium] for corporate entertainment,” he said. “They don’t go beyond what has already been done. These artists push the limits and invent something new.”

When entering the third-floor gallery, right across from the elevators, the first piece people see is a projection of still black and white images on the wall. The images appear blurry, but they were created to be viewed through a pair of 3-D glasses. After slipping on a pair available next to the projection, one realizes the still images are being carefully panned to create the illusion of the figures moving within the frame.

The piece, “LYAM 3D” by Kota Ezawa, replicates a selection of scenes from the 1961 French film “Last Year at Marienbad.” Ezawa experimented with the popular 3-D effect found in several modern-day movies to reimagine how the moving image could move beyond the movie.

Another piece, to the left of Ezawa’s work, is “Grand Central Station #2” by Jim Campbell, one of two works in the gallery created in 2009. Campbell used LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, to illuminate a still photograph of wooden floors of New York’s Grand Central Station. Besides the floors, the only other thing in the photograph is a single newspaper, abandoned on the floor.

Shadowy, ghostlike figures move across the floors, created by Campbell by programming some of the LEDs in patterns. This gives the illusion of people walking through Grand Central.

Hanhardt also wanted to pay tribute to Nam June Paik, considered to be the first video artist. The installation, “9/23/69: Experiments With David Atwood,” features a TV set from the 1960s. In the TV screen, images from 1960s videos are warped and distorted with color and shapes. Though easily found on applications such as Apple’s Photo Booth today, these kinds of changes were unheard of at the time. Paik had to invent them, Hanhardt said.

Another earlier piece comes from artist Peter Campus. “Three Transitions,” made in 1973, features Campus in three different scenarios being played on a TV. The first shows Campus cutting through a yellow paper wall. He positions a camera on each side of the wall. During the editing process, he laid the images on top of each other, creating the illusion that he was cutting through himself. Another “transition” shows a video of Campus “erasing” his own face by rubbing it away, only to reveal a still photograph of himself underneath. The final episode shows the artist burning a photograph of himself. But instead of a still image, he has positioned a video of his face where his portrait would be.

For Hanhardt, it’s important to display these kind of installations because he believes the future of art is likely to be in new media. 

“Some of the best work coming from young artists are in these forms because that’s what they are used to working with,” he said. “It’s what they want to work with. We want to embrace that.”

The exhibit opens Friday.

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