New York

Nancy Holt

Whitney Museum of American Art

Nancy Holt’s videotape Revolve centers on the reflections of a 30-year-old Canadian filmmaker who has leukemia. Set and kept in verbal motion by off-camera questions from Holt, Dennis Wheeler’s stunning discourse deals with his experiences in the hospital, his chemotherapy, and the adjustment to “normal” life during a remission from the disease, when the tape was made. Wheeler’s monologue rivets the attention through a coolly eloquent articulation of the most harrowing events and uncanny insights borne by a bold attempt to comprehend the imminence of his own death. This approaching a “state of perception” about his “terminal trajectory,” as he puts it, is nothing short of a mediation of dread through language, and is, ultimately, Wheeler’s ritualizing, distancing maneuver necessary for a confrontation with the prospect of his own extinction. “Deathwork,” as he describes his introspective “preparations,” becomes a metaphor for the making of the tape and, indeed, for the making of all art; he notes that art, like death, goes beyond the edge of the known.

Nancy Holt enters this process as a video collaborator. Seeking to supply through her medium a spatial-temporal frame for Wheeler’s presence and language, she too is involved in the mechanism of distancing, mediating between Wheeler’s deathwork and the viewer’s resistance to identifying with him. Through shots of him from the varying points of view of three stationary cameras, Holt attempts a rhythmical, almost lyrical restructuring of our perception of Wheeler and his plight. She even “delinearizes” his monologue by the repetition of key fragments seen being spoken from shifted visual perspectives as the camera views change at each edit point. And the video “revolvings” become a visual descant on Wheeler’s conception of death as part of the process of living, in terms of the cyclical patterns he has come to know—health/disease/remission, life/death/rebirth, even the process of hair falling out, growing back, and falling out again during the chemotherapy.

Presumably, Holt’s audio and video manipulations help ritualize the viewer’s perceptual experience of Wheeler in a way which is structurally parallel to Wheeler’s ritualizing verbal mediation of life and death. But this analogizing between the semantic aspects of Wheeler’s narrative and the syntactic aspects of the video-audio information system doesn’t work to any end beyond calling attention to itself as a nice idea. Rather than adding another dimension to our perception of Wheeler’s circumstance which would, theoretically, deepen our understanding of our own life-death cycles, Holt’s distancing devices result only in our becoming aware of a disturbing disjunction between “form” and “content” in the tape. She dissipates the cohesiveness of form and content by directing our view around Wheeler as though he were an isolated sculptural object under examination, while intensifying the undertow of his narrative by echolike repetitions of key ideas.

One might make a positive case out of this—that the tape is exactly about disjunction (life/death) and the necessity of perceiving it as continuity. Nevertheless, we remain, finally, under-distanced from the ferocity of Wheeler’s problem because, in McLuhanesque terms, his audio content is just too “hot” for Holt’s “cool” video form. The media ecology seems out of balance. Wheeler’s own visually expressive verbal perceptions—“spiralling” with the comprehension of his own death—and his display and control of language weave a cloth of consciousness which reveals and conceals (as masks do) the “indeterminate world” of his disease, making Holt’s video machinations seem redundant.

In her sincerity and sympathy with Wheeler’s outlook Holt has avoided any treatment which might be construed as exploitative of the morbid or sensationalistic aspects of death. However, her restraint may also have inhibited a fuller exploitation of her own resources as an artist and of her medium (as demonstrated in some of her earlier works, such as the brilliant videotape Underscan).

Revolve is a tape one may “watch” with eyes closed. The audio imagery of Wheeler’s narrative induces the viewer to supply a more vivid and interesting mental-visual context than the actual visual information supplied by Holt’s video views. The video component reduces to an idea, a tactic, a logic. As it operates in Revolve it tends to depersonalize Wheeler without objectifying or generalizing his situation. Though it seems harsh to say it, the video idea trivializes his experience as raw material for an exercise in perception. Seemingly undecided between making an “art tape” and a “straight documentary,” Holt sought an optimal distance from her most difficult subject through making what might be called a “meta-documentary.” She didn’t find that distance, but we are still richer for our encounter with Dennis Wheeler.

Richard Lorber