The Shanghai Himalayas Museum brings together influential video artists from famous collection.
“Welcome to My Life” just closed on Sunday 26 June 2016, but even though the works on display at the Shanghai museum are now once more hidden from the public eye until the next showing, their influence will remain and continue to inspire video artists around the globe. Art Radar takes a peak at some of these unique video art masterpieces.
“Welcome to My Life – Moving Image from Collection of Isabelle and Jean-Conrad Lemaître” was on show at the Shanghai Himalayas Museum for roughly two months and was co-organised by the Museum and the French Embassy (Ambassade de Frence en Chine) as one of the core projects of 2016 Festival Croisements.
The exhibition was co-curated by Yongwoo Lee, Executive Director of the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, and Xiaodong (Art) Yan, and comprised 23 works by influential video artists from around the globe, including names such as Steve McQueen, Mark Wallinger, Yang Fudong, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Yto Barrada. The works were carefully selected from the collection of renowned French video art collectors Jean Conrad Lemaître and Isabelle Lemaître, to provide rich narrative of video art history and the development of the medium from the 1980s to the present day.
A top-of-the-notch video art collection
The Lemaîtres started adding video art to their already existing collection of contemporary art in the mid-1990s and from then, video became the core focus of their collection, which has become one of the top of its kind in the world (listed among the top ten collections of video and new media art in the world by Larry’s List in 2014).
In an interview with curator Benjamin Weil, the Lemaîtres reveal they started collecting video art in 1996, when they encountered the work of Gillian Wearing. They decided then to combine their passion for cinema with their collection of contemporary art. They say:
[…] we are interested in what video is now, with a multitude of references.We want our collection to reflect our place in time. We are surrounded by images of all kinds, and at the same time tools have become more accessible to shoot, to edit and to present work. As a growing number of artists use video as part of the many tools they use to make art, there is maybe a more fluid way to produce moving images: video is a medium that makes complete sense today.
We also like the fact video is a time-based media. You have to take your time to enjoy it: somehow the moving image imposes its time on you as a viewer. In a day and age when all goes fast, and when we tend to zap and hurry, it is nice to have a good reason to slow down, and focus!
In another interview with Independent Collectors, the Lemaîtres also reveal the role that photography played in their choice of collecting video art and the challenges of collecting when they first started:
Video works have finally been accepted as works of art. Before, it was looked upon as a consumer product, just like photography had been previously. […] When we had just begun acquiring video works, and still weren’t well-known as collectors, we had to fight against museums and other institutions in the galleries – the dealers wanted to sell only to museums and institutions.
In the same interview, the collectors reveal about the first ever piece of video art they bought:
That was “Boy Time” (1999), by the British artist Gillian Wearing. In the piece, four young adolescents attempt to keep up the illusion of a group portrait. Staying still in one position for a whole hour – that’s not easy for youngsters. Boredom creeps in, as does irritation, griping, and cursing at curious passersby. The still pose begins to fall apart. And the artist films this. It’s an interesting work! We bought it from a London gallery. We then continued with works by Steve McQueen and Mark Wallinger, Tacita Dean and then we began to look beyond Europe.
A history of video art in one show
“Welcome to My Life” brought together a number of works that span the last 30 years, covering a wide spectrum of video art. The exhibited works engage with a range of topics, from psychological storytelling, science fiction, social issues and the urban environment, to isolation and irony, collective cooperation, urbanization, and language and the preservation of 16mm film. The exhibition was organised into five sections, and as the press release writes,
Departing from the traditional notion of the “black box” in film exhibitions, here one follows a specifically guided experience through a series of films ordered and presented in new combinations. From one-minute shorts to films spanning nearly an hour in duration, the entire exhibition includes 5 hours, 51 minutes, and 57 seconds of footage, weaving together sound and silence, light and dark, conflict and harmony, beauty and tragedy.
According to Yongwoo Lee, as he writes in his curatorial essay, “Video art can be generally divided into three genres”: “aesthetical video art” based on formalistic aesthetics; “political video art” as documentary works that prioritise audience participation; and video works exploring “experimental narratology or complex storylines in the manner of feature films”.
It is the last type which is at the core of the exhibition and as Lee continues in his essay,
As if a painter would create a painting with expressive brush marks, many of the videos in the show hide their cold, mechanical characteristics by revealing their humanistic features. The celebrated progenitor of video art, Nam June Paik once stated, “If one cannot freely employ technical elements like a painting brush, the technology within art simply remains a s a trick more than anything else.” His perceptive remark reminds us that all technology exists as ‘humanized technology’ to serve for the benefit of humanity.
In his essay, Lee provides a brief history of the origins of video art, mentioning how South Korean Nam June Paik, considered the “father of video art”, was among a group of artists that in the 1960s rebelled against television and information privatisation, following the reinterpretation of conventional artistic media and populist art by the Fluxus artists and John Cage.
Influential works of video art
Mark Wallinger’s Threshold to the Kingdom (2000) is appropriately positioned at the entrance to the exhibition, as if to ask viewers whether they are ready to enter the “kingdom of video art”. The work shows a set of automatic doors at the International Arrivals Terminal in London Heathrow, where travellers arrive and adjust their demeanour to walk through customs.
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster presents a film of 11 short, poetic “psycho-geographic portraits” of cities around the world, including Kyoto at dusk. In the meantime, voice-overs narrate descriptions that are of different cities than the one on screen, offering an alternative perception or understanding of a city as “emotional, transitory, premature, and open to multiple readings”.
Arash Nassiri’s Tehran Geles (2014) is a fictional vision of Tehran that uses Los Angeles as its setting. The film projects the past of the Iranian city into the present of Los Angeles, and as the artist writes,
During an aerial journey we discover an uncanny landscape. While flying over boulevards, personal souvenirs of migrants create an echo to the collective story of the Iranian capital. Arriving in Downtown, the buildings are saturated with neon signs, pulsating with the voices, taking us on a hallucinating trip.
In Koki Tanaka’s A piano played by five pianists at once takes the artist’s “chance operations” of improvised performance into the real of “chance music” or “aleatory music” – a method of composition that introduces elements of chance or unpredictability regarding the composition or its performance (PDF download). Tanaka invited five musicians to compose and play a piece of music on a single piano in front of his camera, providing a different, contingent model of collaboration and, by extension, collectivity.
Yog raj chitakar visits lal Chowk Srinagar by Nikhil Chopra sees the artist walk to Lal Chowk (Red Square), the symbolic centre of Srinagar in Kashmir, the site of numerous political agitations since 1989. The performance involved Yog Raj Chitrakar making a charcoal drawing of the clock tower in the square. Lasting for about an hour, the performance continued through a police crackdown that happened while the artist was drawing on the ground.
As Chopra himself writes,
Even as I was aware of the politically sensitive history of the chosen site, the performance was not intended to be a self-conscious act of public protest or disobedience. However the turn of events that followed during my performance brought me face-to-face with a ground reality of the people living in Srinagar. This performance became especially significant to my practice as it reaffirmed to me that the act of drawing and performing could be used as a tool of powerful critical intervention.
Until the end of a tape marks a new orientation in Takehito Koganezawa’s style, with a focus on the lyrical and solitary. The video is a real reflection on the notion of the classifiable and unclassifiable, and questions the connection between time and experience and between apprehension and perception of an object.
Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s Le Magicien follows a magician in action, whose skills are not quite surprising enough, and whose concentration contrasts neatly with the simple presence of his stage props. At once the illusionist and the disillusioned, the magician appears as a ridiculous figure.
In the last galleries, Yang Fudong presents Backyard: Hey, Sun is Rising, which follows four main characters seeking places on the streets and in parks to smoke, play poker, take part in Chinese massages and practice fencing. Their serious demeanors are foiled by the meaninglessness of their actions – a farce exposing the loss of older customs in today’s society.
Closing the show, Liu Zhenchen’s L’Adieu, 100 years after the Titanic sees the world’s most famous luxury liner ship “Queen Mary 2” set sail, as the Museum describes,
its passengers wave goodbye to the continent while the ship cruises into the sunset in a single slow-motion shot, hinting at the question of whether or not they will be seen again.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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