New York

Douglas Davis

Video Distribution, Inc., Idea Warehouse

In an October, 1973, article in Artforum, Douglas Davis stressed the need for “a proper understanding and use of content [in art]—of symbols and meanings that point outside toward the world.” He was particularly critical of American artists’ avoidance of, or naive, often “bathetic” handling of subject matter in their tacit continuation of the formalist emphasis on “art” structure. The predominant fear he pointed to is that “by dealing in meaning the work of art may immediately absorb itself into the world, losing its privileged (esthetic) shelter.” “We are all caught in the tautology that art counts only as art when it is about art. The essential step is to break out of this restrictive trap, which requires a willingness to integrate the complex self (with its feelings about the outside world) and the work of art.”

In some sense, Davis’s notes toward a definition of content serve as a commentary on his recent work. His videotape Fragments for a New Art of the 70’s offers a verbatim adherence to his insistence on the “complex self,” the artist who thinks not only about art but also about the world. Davis is seen feeding his thoughts as they occur into a teletypewriter, which in turn spews them onto the screen (typos and all). A clock records the real time flow of this tract in the making. One of Davis’s major complaints in his article concerns the banality of content used. This video provides an example. For what one gets is a succession of platitudes without the thinking that might inform them. “Almost every act is political (to say ‘every’ depoliticizes the statement).” “Art is a mental fact—the propositions not analytic.” At one point there is an abrupt switch to the “real” world —“today’s newspaper still in my mind.” A series of glib reflections follows ... the “complex self” emerging? In the end, it is the form that predominates, the way the piece is staged. Davis is always the self-conscious performer, and his language is a contrived gesture toward content. One loses the entry-point to the mind—the process, the questioning of thinking—in receiving its packaged artifacts.

In other tapes, Davis engages the viewer in a more direct (physical) confrontation. I could only see these tapes in the gallery, although they were supposed to have been played on cable TV. And this perhaps distorts the interplay between the safe distance of the video image and the intimacy of home TV-viewing (for which they are intended). But try to imagine. The Austrian, Florence, and Caracas tapes all involve prescribed tasks which the viewer, in the privacy of his home, is to perform with the public Davis acting on the screen: touching hands, lips, backs together; undressing, walking, dressing together; drawing together on the monitor, on one’s body. Implicit throughout is the contrast between contact, sharing with the other, and separateness from him. Yet Davis’s repeating monotone instructions and his neat comments as to what one should be experiencing convert the actions into a drill routine. The interchange remains on the surface. And the possible psychological content takes shape as a didactic art exercise.

What disturbs me in Davis’s approach to content is the underlying triteness of his means—a presentation of ideas which accentuates their manipulation, their artificial context. Two 1975 pieces rely on images as evocative expression of the mind (the reference, I think, is Beuys). But The Last Videotape (in the World) is super-melodrama. As the words of the title appear over a hard-to-decipher picture of Davis’s reposing body, one hears dogs growling and a phone ringing without answer. Sure, there’s an eeriness to this, but it’s an eeriness one has learned as convention. More effective is Davis’s Images from the Present Tense II. The poster announcing this piece shows Davis seated beside a tied-up, mummylike package. The unveiled work exhibits a “flying man” dummy suspended from the ceiling. Alone, spotlit in the large room, this object insists on its presence, while the remnants of past performance (the wrappings) lie below. The incessant ticking of a nearby clock reinforces the drama of now.

Susan Heinemann