Weather Underground

Left: George Kuchar, Weather Diary 5, 1989, still from a color video, 38 minutes 17 seconds. Right: George Kuchar, Weather Diary 1, 1986, still from a color video, 79 minutes.

“IF WE NEED ACTION”—camera pans up toward an ominous gray sky—“we know where to look.” The joke, delivered by George Kuchar about halfway through his Weather Diary 5 (1989), is typical fare for the filmmaker, riffing on his frustration with the lack of sexual stimulation in his cooped-up motel room and the inherent dangers of the locale: the “Tornado Alley” region of Oklahoma that Kuchar has been visiting each May for the past two decades. The result is an ongoing personal theater of absurdity, nonpareil in the world of cinema.

Kuchar’s career as a filmmaker can be divided into three discernible phases: his earliest collaborations with his twin brother, Mike, in the 1950s and ’60s, when the two emerged as pioneers of the early New York underground film scene; the chaotic and colorful films he has made with his students each year, since the early ’70s, at the San Francisco Art Institute; and his more personal, diaristic video works. It is this third phase, resulting in several hundred works to date, that forms the focus of a retrospective, curated by scholar Marc Siegel, currently on view as part of the Berlin Biennial. Kuchar began working with a camcorder in the ’80s because, in his words, it was a “despised medium,” ugly and amateur—the stuff of home movies rather than a vehicle for high art. Ever prescient, Kuchar immediately sensed that the most interesting way of dealing with video’s limitations would be to exploit them. The resulting oeuvre can be read as a single, continuous opus, with individual films serving as chapters, ranging in length from under ten minutes to over an hour. Stylistically, the work is neither home movie nor high art, but perhaps a little of both, and it forms a self-portrait of the artist—his journeys, his friends, and his daily motions—all transmitted through Kuchar’s self-deprecating, Bronx-accented narration. The Kuchar oeuvre is an archaeology of the mundane.

The centerpiece of Kuchar’s work since the late ’80s has been his “Weather Diaries” (1986–), which document his annual visits to the El Reno Motel in El Reno, Oklahoma. These trips are a means of temporarily escaping the muck of urban life while simultaneously engaging the artist’s childhood fascination with—and fear of—extreme weather. Much of the footage focuses on Kuchar’s motel room: a collage of banal narrative veering perpetually toward the grotesque (as we are constantly reminded of the artist’s canned-meat-and-fast-food diet—and its gastrointestinal consequences) interspersed with weather reports from television and radio, as well as “action” shots of the (impending) storms outside the window. Occasionally, he ventures out for strained interactions with the locals. In Weather Diary 5, we accompany Kuchar to an empty beauty salon, where the proprietress gives us an in-depth tour of all the hair products. In Weather Diary 3 (1988), he befriends a student storm chaser staying in the room next door. Kuchar’s infatuation with the young man seems more rooted in his awe of the meteorology student’s bravery than in straightforward sexual attraction.

Like his ambivalent fix on El Reno, Kuchar’s relationship with mainstream cinema has always been one of give-and-take. While there’s nothing here resembling a conventional plot, the action is always fast-paced, with most shots in the “Hollywood” three-and-a-half-to-five-second range, thus resisting the strategic slowness on which oppositional strategists of “art cinema” so often rely. Kuchar could be thought of as anti-anti, his art the deployment of a deliberate artlessness. With its wandering gaze, lo-fi effects, and obsessive need to document and find spectacular meaning in the unspectacular, Kuchar’s vision continues to be one of the most endearing in American cinema.

A selection of George Kuchar’s video works curated by Marc Siegel is on view through August 8, 2010, at Mehringdamm 28, D-10961 Berlin, as part of the 6th Berlin Biennial.