Video Art, Castello di
Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art
[286pp £16.95. Skira Editore, Palazzo Casati Stampa, Via Torino 61,
Let's get the obvious point out of the way first.
The problem with showing video art in book form is that the two properties
that distinguish video from other visual mediums - movement and sound - are
impossible to replicate on the printed page. Of course, a case can be made
that painting and photography also lose something by being reproduced in a
book or catalogue; there are compromises to be made in terms of scale and
quality and, with painting, a loss of a sense of texture. But the loss of
'essence' in the case of video is so much greater that it raises serious
doubts about whether the transfer can be achieved at all.
Only a tiny fragment - often a frame or two - of the work can be shown. So,
where a publisher of a book of paintings or photographs can reproduce a
sufficient portion of the artist's output to give the reader a fighting
chance of getting to grips with the work, in the case of this book all we are
left with is a single still from each video and a short description of the
piece. It is almost impossible to get a feel for the work under discussion
from those fragments.
Which brings us to the second problem. It is unlikely that many of the videos
will actually have been seen by the book's readers. Unlike still photography
or painting where there is easy access to the work through reproductions in
books and exhibition catalogues, in the case of video widespread
dissemination of the artists' work is highly problematical. I would take
issue with the claim in the book's introduction that early video artists
'were reaching out of the traditional boundaries of the art world and
engaging a medium with the potential to create direct lines of communication
between artists and audiences, ignoring or short-circuiting the power of
museums, galleries and critics.' The claim that there are parallels with
artists' use of the Internet today is especially misplaced. In the early days
not only was there no Internet, even video had yet to been invented, leaving
the artists reliant on Super 8 or 16mm film and making mass reproduction of
the work almost impossible. Any 'direct communication' with the audience
would therefore have taken place on a very limited scale, at least in the
Not a terribly promising start then. So how have the authors of this
particular survey, based on the video art collection of the Castello di
Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Italy, tackled the task of explaining
this difficult medium?
Given the difficulty of representing video art on the printed page, the
book's text becomes perhaps more important than usual in a collection of this
type. The title of the introductory essay - 'The History Remains Provisional'
- acknowledges the relatively short lifespan of the medium. Video artists of the early 1960s were
typically divided between those who saw the new medium as a way to make
documentary films outside the control of the mainstream mass media and those
who explored the medium for purely artistic ends. In North America
especially, conceptual artists like Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari saw the
potential of video to extend their work through recorded 'performances. By
the mid 1970s, artists in all areas of practice were using video, enjoying
the liberation from the prevailing critical stranglehold that was
constraining other mediums.
Moving on to the individual artists themselves, the impossibility of
summarising the vast range of styles and approaches rapidly becomes apparent.
We have everything from a William Wegman film of two dogs moving their heads
rhythmically from side to side as if watching a tennis match, a 60 minute
black and white piece by Bruce Nauman in which 'the artist's body is filmed
while it bounces against the corner of his studio' and an 18 minute video by
John Baldessari in which a series of letters are held up in front of a
houseplant in an apparent effort to teach it the alphabet. There are also
works which are relatively 'straight - for example a selection of films by
Joseph Beuys in which the artist is either interviewed about his work or
talks directly to an audience - which could I suspect have just as easily
emanated from the mainstream media.
One thing that does stand out, however, is that the main concern of video
artists frequently seems to be the exploration of the nature, possibilities
and boundaries of their medium itself. Of course, in other areas of the
visual arts there are many who share similar concerns, but perhaps the fact
that video is so much younger as an art form means that there seems to be a
greater fascination with the tools of the trade. The medium, very often, is
Another consequence of the novelty of their craft is that video artists
appear unusually concerned to stake the claim of their medium for a place in
the gallery environment as its natural home. The question of how video 'art'
can distinguish itself both from mainstream movies and, more importantly,
art-house cinema would seem to be answered on the basis of who owns it and
where it is viewed as much as anything else. Photography moves much more
easily between the world of the book, magazine or even billboard (Mario
Testino's fashion images being a case in point) and the gallery than does the
moving image. Where critics endlessly debate the claims of an individual
photographer to be an artist, in the
case of video it would appear that the decision of a gallery or
collector of video art to purchase a piece of work is the necessary (and
sometimes sole) prerequisite for the bestowal of the status of art.
Overall, then, video art remains a tricky proposition as far as the book form
is concerned. This is unfortunate as the medium encompasses a vast range of
styles and subjects and, given the power and ubiquity of the mass media in
the 21st century, we need artists capable of critiquing and
offering a different take on the moving image. There is enough in this
particular collection to whet the appetite of anybody wanting to learn more
about the history of this still youthful art-form.