New York

1989 Biennial (Film & Video)

Whitney Museum of American Art

Despite the limitations inherent in trying to select from two years of work, the film and video section of the Whitney Biennial represented an impressive range of work that pointed to an even greater range of possibilities. In the face of the thin sliver of choices sanctioned by the dominant market forces of film and television, a tropical forest of rare and beautiful work continues to hang on elsewhere and by other means. Mainstream film has generally been forced to abandon two of its greatest resources: the use of black and white stock, with its potential for dramatic conflict, and a conscious display of the relation of cinema’s present forms to its past ones. A number of films shown here, such as Michael Wallin’s Decodings, 1988, and Abigail Child’s Mayhem, 1987, used one or both of these resources to achieve outstanding results. Just as remarkable are the rapid advances made in the use of video over the past few years. I walked away exhilarated by the work, but dismayed at how little known much of it remains.

Archival analysis (arke, a Greek word from which “archival” derives, means both “power” and “origin”) was evident in many works, whether or not they made use of archival footage. Su Friedrich’s film Damned If You Don’t, 1987, emphasizes the viewer’s relation to its narrative by intercutting the story of a lesbian relationship between a nun and a woman artist with portions of two other earlier representations of the sexuality of nuns. These other accounts include the voice of a former nun relating her own experiences, extracts read from a nun’s confessions during a trial in medieval Europe, and scenes taken from the film Black Narcissus, 1947, depicting a nun falling in love with a man. The images Friedrich chooses to film not only seductively advance the story she is telling, but also raise questions of representation through the juxtaposition of narratives.

Martha Rosler’s video Born to Be Sold. Martha Rosier Reads the Strange Case of Baby $ M, 1988, examines the forces of class and gender as they influence the issue of surrogacy, its legality, and the motivations of those involved. One method Rosler uses to accomplish this is to select and comment on footage from major network news coverage of the highly publicized court case. She argues that the same class considerations that determine television advertising also determine that the news will favor the professional family trying to adopt the baby girl over the working class “biological” mother. Another technique Rosier employs is the ingenious use of handcrafted stage sets that evoke both the early days of television and household crafts. The video effectively works to demystify television, to bring it closer to the creative and analytic possibilities residing in the viewer’s own experiences.

Jason Simon’s video Production Notes: Fast Food for Thought, 1987, allows successive examples of slick television ads to play themselves out unimpinged, then shows them again in slow-motion, accompanied by a narration consisting mostly of notes from the advertising agency to the production company. Listening to the words that helped to dictate the image, the viewer becomes aware of how carefully premeditated are the strategies that drive these portrayals of innocence, simple fun, and the good life. By leaving the advertisements intact, by simply slowing them down and changing the soundtrack, Simon has found a way to attract the same audience, but with a much more problematic, oppositional message.

Works by two artists in particular reflect the extraordinary diversity and depth of the film and video in this year’s Biennial. Leslie Thornton’s videos Peggy and Fred in Kansas and Peggy and Fred and Pete, both 1987, construct, through a disparate use of styles, childhood among post-futuristic ruins, where the major portion of time is spent underground. Thorn-ton’s videos, shot on black-and-white film then assembled on video, memorably depict a fragmented world where neither ecosystems, salvaged as snippets of film, nor childhood grant the viewer an uncomplicated point of reference. Sandy Moore’s film Reverse Transcriptase, 1989, takes for its structure the replication and replacement of the DNA molecule by the HIV virus. A limited number of cartoon images and Moore’s drawings are each tagged to a unit of the DNA compound. The images flicker past the eye at an ever greater pace: the impressive result, simply put, is that they bring to mind how AIDS is culturally constructed, while at the same time undermining this construction as a simple cliché. By engaging timely issues with innovative responses, these works, as well as the film and video section as a whole, provided the Biennial with much-needed connections to the world outside the museum.

Richard C. Ledes