“The Luminous Image”

I don’t know whether the thinking of Marshall McLuhan is still discussed much abroad—his analysis of hot and cold media, for example—but I remembered him in connection with this show. Whatever one thought about the media in the early ’60s, when McLuhan’s ideas were emerging, at least he offered a position, making possible a warm-blooded exchange of views. As I wandered among the video installations that formed the heart of “The Luminous Image,” and, later, sought in the catalogue for some kind of theoretical stance, I was saddened. Was there any theoretical justification for this arrangement of heterogeneous video installations? Was there any starting point from which to orient one’s impressions and experiences? If a point of reference was to be found among these disparate works, it was what I might call the “Flintstone Principle,” the overwhelming bricolages of incongruous objects that surrounded the illuminated monitors. Here one saw a set of Greek columns, kitschy in gold, on monitors and slides; there are a row of monitors on fake grass, or a series of monitors whose images were barely visible through the wooden construction that framed them. As in a carnival haunted house, the visitor followed a circuit whose dark spaces were separated by black curtains which one had to fumble through in order to pass. This was a reversion to the early years of television, when the screen still had the fascination of a magic lantern.

Brian Eno’s installation was the largest, and most successfully concealed its TV sets. To the accompaniment of Eno’s “ambient music,” architectural/sculptural forms were lit in slowly changing pastel colors from hidden monitors; the environment was pitch dark but for these gradually transforming colors. Vito Acconci’s installation was a wooden chair in the form of a head open on two sides; sitting inside, viewers could communicate with each other through video monitors. Robert Wilson built a container covered with faded plastic, showing images of a girl drawing, a flying mannequin carrying an enormous stone on its back, and other scenes, while groups of monitors broadcast varying programs. The work seemed overdone; it did not communicate the surreal atmosphere Wilson obviously wanted to express in his images. Opposing themselves to Wilson’s pretensions, Dara Birnbaum’s incisive tapes worked well. The Damnation of Faust: Evocation, 1983, is a very focused visual poem, with Birnbaum making a scene on the swings of a children’s playground into a loaded drama. These pieces are wonders of compressed energy. Less intense but surprising in the context of the show was Marcel Odenbach’s Dreihändiges Klavierkonzert für entsetzlich verstimmte Instrumente (Three-handed piano piece for a frightfully out-of-tune instrument, 1984), and the slow-motion images of Ulay and Marina Abramović.

Other installations offered examples of the interesting tendencies in today’s video art. In Bill Violas commemoration of Saint John of the Cross, a loud soundtrack and images flashing by on huge screens stood in for the small prison cell in which the saint wrote his poetry. Mary Lucier’s Ohio at Giverny, 1983, a many-layered homage to Claude Monet with the suggestion of a narrative taking place between nature and the interior of a solemn 19th-century house, is the esthetically balanced work of a fine artist. But “The Luminous Image” was in many ways a lost chance. It lacked a unifying concept, a clear vision of its material. Mature and immature, careful and naive work was thrown together like bric-a-brac; the viewer could not see the forest for the trees.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Carolien Stikker.