Video Art as a Successful Medium in the “In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations” Exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum

Video Art as a Successful Medium in the “In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations” Exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, on view from January 31- April 20, 2014

This exhibition supported the artists’ ability to convey enhanced feelings from traumatic issues and events to the viewer with the use of contemporary video art. The Kemper Art Museum, located on the Washington University campus in St. Louis, Missouri, held the exhibition, In the Aftermath of Trauma: Contemporary Video Installations. The featured artists’ use of video art expresses certain elements that traditional art mediums may lack the ease of conveying; such as the motion, narrative and sounds captured from real-life. Combined with the use of fact, history, memory and reality, the artists’ in this exhibition were able to achieve enhanced emotionally and politically charged statements with photography and video installation. The artists shown in this exhibition are Yael Bartana, Phil Collins, Alfredo Jaar, Anwar Kanwar and Vandy Rattana. Their work concerns topics such as, capitalism vs. communism, environmental and community concerns post-tragedy, and other specific traumatic events.

Video art was born out of the 1960s upon the technologies availability. Originally, video equipment was only used by advertisers and corporations. A popularity for film started within the United States, Germany, Austria, and Great Britain once the equipment became available for purchase[1]. The medium became very formally and politically radical for artists. This medium gave artists the power to broadcast their own views onto public television. Artists who took advantage of video art were involved with the Arte Povera and Fluxus art movements, avant-garde music, body, conceptual, performance and pop art, contemporary dance and theater, experimental film, minimalist sculpture, and many others. Film was used experimentally in its early use. Artists were fascinated with the video affects you can achieve in editing. They explored how issues of content could be unlocked with the use of the video medium. Through the 1990s, video technology had advanced greatly and had a large influence on contemporary art[2]. Artists used the video camera as an extension of their own bodies which linked the physical and the conceptual. With the growth of video technology, the medium has now expanded into more elements in video installations, which includes, but is not limited to photography, sculpture, animations, and graphics[3].

Upon entering the In the Aftermath of Trauma exhibition at the Kemper Art Museum, Alfredo Jaar’s, May 1, 2011, was the first artwork to be encountered. Jaar displayed two images side-by-side, one a photograph, and one blank. On the outside to the left and the right of the two images are smaller images, one blank and one a diagram. The main image is a recognizable iconic image from the United States’ history. This moment captured by photographer Pete Souza was taken in The White House while the national leaders viewed live footage of the assault of Osama Bin Laden. This historical event, a huge success for America in the war on terrorism, was known to the public but the footage remained unreleased. President Barack Obama wanted to protect his country from retaliation if the footage was released. He stated that it was a time to end “seeing is believing”, which was the way of the wars in the past. The need to trust in our leaders and believe that they are taking care of our country was important to Obama[4].

alfredojarr[5]

Placed to the left of the iconic image is a blank image. The viewers are left to their imaginations to recreate what was seen on the unreleased footage. Jaar was very interested in the absent, unseen image. As a part of his main concerns in his work he likes to talk about exposure of images. The two small images on the far right and left are also in comparison. The far-right photo is a diagram of the political image; whereas the photo on the far left is blank[6].

Phil Collins’ Marxism Today was playing in the first of four dark rooms in the exhibition. This thirty-five minute film is composed of a combination of interviews, reenactments of the teaching of Marxism, and large formations of dance. This video talks about life in Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin wall which combined the ideals of East and West Germany. Several different people who have been directly affected by these changes were interviewed. These interviews are intimate, as they are recorded within the interviewees comfort zone, such as their own house, or within the classroom they teach in. The subject is placed in the center of the frame, which makes the video feel very personal, as if you’re talking to that person directly. Being filmed straight on without filters and editing creates a vulnerability which helps the viewer in sympathizing with the subject[7].

In part of the film a teacher reenacts what a lesson would have been like before East and West Germany unified. This reenactment is in black and white, cutting to key points in their lesson to create a specific point, and eventually the teacher’s audio is taken over by music that drowns his monotone voice out, perhaps pointing out the purposelessness of the information that was taught. He also adds black and white pictures and discolored films from the past that are a stark contrast to the more recent interviews to differentiate before and after a communist government. The contrasting film effects of the past and present makes the viewer feel a sense of time and memory[9].

In the second dark room of the exhibition, is Vandy Rattana’s video, Bomb Ponds. Rattana is interested in physical documentation of history, stories, and traits of the culture in Cambodia where he was born. While photographing a rubber factory in Cambodia for another project he discovered a large perfect circle of water in the field across the street. Out of his curiosity he discovered by a group of locals that these were referred to as “bomb ponds”. During the Vietnam War the United States had dropped over 2.7 million pounds of bombs across Cambodia from 1964-1973. The United States were trying to push people out of the country. The locals and villagers knew little, until they were directly hit, killing their friends and families and destroying their land. All that was left were the stories of the people who experienced what happened and these perfect circles filled with toxic water[10].

Rattana was interested in finding out the history and stories behind people directly affected by these bombs. He found the ponds very strange as they seemed to be beautiful natural formations, but were made by destruction that was left by traumatic events. In his video, he interviews several local people who describe in their own words how they experienced and dealt with the trauma. The film is very emotion the way that the interviews, much like in Phil Collins’ Marxism Today, are very directly captured within the frame, with minimal film editing. Directly outside of the dark room that the video played in, were large backlit photos of several of the bomb ponds. The scale of the photos gave a sense of space to the viewer, reflecting on the large traumatic impact on the environment and community[12].

The third video installation in the exhibition was laid out in a much larger dark room. The room was not only larger but there were eight projection screens all playing at once, overlapping texts, and audio. In the center were scattered stools for the viewer to be able to view the room by rotating their bodies. Anwar Kanwar’s Lightning Testimonies exposed the sexual violence against women in India. First Kanwar was a political activist after growing up during two major traumatic events in his home of New Delhi, India: the killings of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Ghandi in 1984 and a toxic gas leak that killed and injured thousands from an American pesticide plant. He became interested in video art after studying at several schools, eventually pursing his film education in the Centre of Jamia Millia Islamia University. Kanwar quotes that his work focuses on, “cycles of assassinations, organized killings, religious violence, the raise of fascism” as well as addressing political, economic, and cultural contemporary Indian life. In conveying this traumatic subject of sexual violence against women in his country he used video art in a way that overwhelms the viewer. The viewer’s senses are over-stimulated by noise, text, and video. Reading and watching the eight screens simultaneously becomes virtually impossible for the viewer and causes the viewer to feel overwhelmed by the subject. Video of the women who had experienced these traumatic events walk the viewer through a reenactment. Text reads about reports of what had happened and how it was ignored by the public. Some video scenes play a bird in the forest or a street in a town that contrasts the everyday life that goes on while these traumatic events are still taking place[13].

The last video installation in the In the Aftermath of Trauma exhibition is Yael Bartana’s Mary Koszmary (Nightmares).  This 11:00 minute video, the first of a trilogy film, reflects on the result of Germany’s regrettable governing past. A polish New Left political activist leader, Slawomir Sierakowski, delivered a speech at Decennial Stadium in Warsaw, Germany. This stadium was a significant location for the film, being built in 1955 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a communist state. This stadium regularly held communist propaganda shows, but now is abandoned after communism was no longer Germany’s governing power. The New Left leader delivers a speech that reflects on ones that might have been made in the past, with aggression and authority in his voice. Although the tone of his voice, in contrast, is a very positive message. He is asking that the Jewish people return to Poland. The speech is bringing up the ghosts of Poland’s past as they now live in the shadows of the Holocaust. Even if Jewish people were to come back, it would be more of an invasion now that the polish people have settled into what would have been Jewish homes. This point is made by the leader yelling into an empty stadium, a statement that would fail to be heard by anyone. This film cuts to other clips of people laying out numbers, the statistic of three million Jews that are being asked to return to Poland[15].

The title of the film, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares, hold references to death and nightmares of the past, in combination with the content of the film itself. “Mary” is a word that is polish for “bier”, which is a platform that dead bodies are laid out on. “Koszmar” is a polish borrowed word from the French word “cauchener”, which translates to “knightmare”. “Mare” comes from the root word “mors”, which translates to “death”, an old German folklore of a female demon that affects sleepers[17].

This exhibition explored the subject of trauma with the use of video installation as a medium. Although the content behind each piece was different from one another, the works of art shared a relation to the humanistic qualities of film. Capturing real people talking about traumatic events, filmed in a relatable nature. The editing of film can create a sense of time depending on its color or lack thereof. The location of the filming can give way to important connections for the content of the film. Film is stimulating to the senses as it replays what seems to be a moment in time. The way that the artists used the medium, achieves exploring trauma along with feelings of sympathy, sadness, anger, and regret. The artists were not trying to find answers within their work, but through the use of video art, successfully commemorate, expose issues, and work through troubling subjects to share with others.

[1] Rush, Michael. Video Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

[2] Meigh-Andrews, Chris. A History of Video Art: The Development of Form and Function. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

[3] Rush, Michael. Video Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

[4] Radine, Leonie. Alfredo Jaar, May 1, 2001. October 29, 2011. http://www.scadmoa.org/art/exhibitions/may-1-2011 (accessed April 28, 2014).

[5] http://www.scadmoa.org/art/exhibitions/may-1-2011%20

[6] Radine, Leonie. Alfredo Jaar, May 1, 2001. October 29, 2011. http://www.scadmoa.org/art/exhibitions/may-1-2011 (accessed April 28, 2014).

[7] O’Kane, Paul. “Phil Collins.” Third Text 25, no. 5 (September 2011): 644-648. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed April 29, 2014).

[9] O’Kane, Paul. “Phil Collins.” Third Text 25, no. 5 (September 2011): 644-648. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed April 29, 2014).

[10] Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. “Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds Photographs and Video.” Guggenheim video, 6:54. September 19, 2013. http://www.guggenheim.org/video/vandy-rattanas-bomb-ponds-photographs-and-video

[12] Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. “Vandy Rattana’s Bomb Ponds Photographs and Video.” Guggenheim video, 6:54. September 19, 2013. http://www.guggenheim.org/video/vandy-rattanas-bomb-ponds-photographs-and-video

[13] Kanwar, Amar. Amar Kanwar: Evidence. Winterthur: Steidl, 2012.

[15] Bartana, Yael. And Europe Will Be Stunned. London: Artangel, 2011.

[17] See 10 above

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