New York

“Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964–1977”

Whitney Museum of American Art

After the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, some psychologists discovered that young children watching the endlessly repeated footage of the second collision on TV believed that each replay of the crash represented a new event. The fact that adults in the United States would never fall into this gruesome misperception is not only an index of greater maturity but also an indication of how inured we are to the pulse of repetition that characterizes television—a medium in which events of the past are compulsively renewed in the present. Literary theorist Fredric Jameson has identified this condition as fundamental to postmodernism, which he described in his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1984) as the “disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present.” Elsewhere Jameson declares that video (encompassing television and video art) is a primary tool in accomplishing this massive evacuation of memory through the constant replenishment of mediated experience. Video and history, then, would seem to be incompatible, since the former is permanently locked in the present tense. The prospect of making a history of media art, as the Whitney Museum claims to do with “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964–1977,” organized by Chrissie Iles, is therefore both significant and vexed. How can one give to video and film the arc of historical development they tend to undermine through their own procedures? To attempt this paradoxical project at this moment is doubly overdetermined. First, while video and film projections of the ’60s and ’70s tended to be aesthetically and conceptually severe, the current vogue for projection is typified by a lushness and scale more commonly associated with painting. The Whitney’s project thus implicitly offers a suppressed genealogy for the more spectacular media works of the past few years. But more poignantly, this survey comes at a moment when historical events are absolutely, and from the start, experienced as media events. The imbrication of history and media is, of course, nothing new. Already in 1961 Daniel Boorstin spoke of pseudoevents, which he defined as activities self-consciously crafted for media reporting. But in our current moment when virtually every television drama has incorporated a story line referring to September 11; when Osama bin Laden delivers his messages to the West via videotape; and when a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, is hired by the Bush administration to, as the New York Times put it, use “her marketing skills to try to make American values as much a brand name as McDonald’s ham- burgers,” the pseudoevent has become our primary reality.

Iles’s central thesis is that the traditions of media art and post-Minimal sculpture meet in a variety of film and video installations of the ’60s and ’70s that, in Jameson’s terms, “spatialize” media. In a nice turn of phrase, Iles describes this convergence as a “hybrid of white cube and black box.” Just as Jameson’s postmodernism opposes space to time by arguing that, in a media-saturated world, narrative collapses into a dizzying simultaneity of information, Iles’s show would seem to promise not only a historical account of an artpractice, but also a shift in the nature of history—from sequential narrative to a spatialized projection in real time. But the questions of history and media that are raised by the show, and which have been central to American Me since the ’60s, are not adequately addressed by the exhibition’s structure. Instead of constructing chronological or thematic genealogies, works are arranged in an arbitrary sequence that articulated neither a synchronic moment nor a diachronic narrative, offering instead a chain of new and different spectacles like successive rides at an amusement park. On entering “Into the Light” one first encounters Robert Whitman’s Shower, 1964, in which a film loop of a nude woman rinsing herself is projected into a working shower.

Whitman, one of the most important Happenings artists, enlivened a physical setting in this work with a ghostly filmic inhabitant. In the next gallery is Andy Warhol’s double-screen film Lupe, 1965, starring Edie Sedgwick impersonating the lurid Hollywood suicide of Lupe Velez. Sedgwick’s camp performance—typical of Warhol’s directing—creates a sharp divide between the character played and the very palpable personality of the “superstar” playing her. This disjunction between a persona and her representations contradicts Whitman’s placement of a character in her “proper” mise-en-scène—a filmed woman in an actual shower. The next installation in the viewer’s path, Joan Jonas’s Mirage, 1976/2001, which combines film and video of the artist’s performative actions, provides yet another model of the self distributed across various disconnected and mediated activities. As this brief description of the first three of nineteen individual works demonstrates, connections may indeed be established among works in the show-in this case on the basis of different models of the relationship between a self, and particularly a feminine self, and her transformation into a character through mechanical reproduction. In deference to the exhibit’s title, this issue might be labeled psychological projection. But connections like this one emerge haphazardly through abrupt and jarring combinations, and they are probably not self-evident to a lay viewer. As a result, “Into the Light” feels like a trade show, in which one disconnected experience succeeds another without building any larger argument.

One way of addressing this problem would have been to introduce history through the juxtaposition of contemporaneous works, either in the galleries or through interpretive materials. Whitman’s association with Happenings, for instance, could have been distinguished for museum visitors from Warhol’s role in Pop and Jonas’s relation to body art. In other words, film and video projection could have been re-situated within the wider range of procedures and practices out of which it developed. Indeed, very few of the artists included in “Into the Light” worked exclusively in film or video. Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris, for instance, made all sorts of hybrid objects in which the limits of perception were tested. Simone Forti is a dancer and the amateurish hologram included in the show was no more than a sideline for her; Yoko Ono is represented through the only video work she ever made, Sky TV, 1966, which charmingly feeds a live image of the sky outside the museum into a monitor in the galleries. “Into the Light” poses as a history of a “medium” (or practice), creating expectations that it will serve as a sequel to Gene Youngblood’s path breaking book of 1970, Expanded Cinema, but it doesn’t deliver on the promise. To have done so it should have included figures essential to such a history, like video artists Nam June Paik, Les Levine, Douglas Davis,and Frank Gillette, and filmmakers Carolee Schneemann, Stan Brakhage, and Stan Vanderbeek. The exhibition’s unaccountable blind spots disqualify it as a legitimate genealogy of media projection. But analyzing media art in terms of medium makes little sense anyway. If the art of the ’60s and ’70s had anything to teach us, it was that aesthetic problems no longer needed to be couched in one form or another but could migrate across different material substrates at will. This is something very difficult to remember, given the art market’s persistent tendency to sort and sell objects according to media like painting, sculpture, and even projection. But such an act of remembrance would have been well worth attempting.

“Into the Light” contains much that is good to see—especially since the preponderance of works exhibited are difficult to comprehend through reproduction and are seldom available to museum audiences. Moreover, any presentation of large and technically complex media installations requires more space than the museum was able to allocate, as evidenced by the exhibition’s “postscript”—Michael Heizer’s 1970 photographic projection Actual Size: Munich Rotary, which will take up the entire fourth floor of the Whitney in January. Despite these limitations, important issues regarding the role of media do arise through the particular collection of works Iles has selected. For instance, the gap between a self and its representation and/or psychological projection is one of the most persistent and provocative themes percolating through “Into the Light.” Peter Campus’s aen, 1977, for instance, orchestrates a surprise encounter between the viewer and his or her image, which appears suddenly, projected larger than life and upside down in a darkened gallery. The effect is both violent—seeing oneself hung upside down as a grainy televisual effigy—and intimate, since the only way to remain before the camera’s eye is to stay very close to the wall, virtually touching the projected image. This species of media alienation is closely tied to a second theme linking many of the works: an effort to heighten the viewer’s consciousness of the act of looking. In installations like Keith Sonnier’s Channel Mix, 1972, the spectator’s image is captured by a closed-circuit camera and juxtaposed on a split screen with the nonstop flow of live commercial television. This effort to make viewing itself part of the program opens onto a third shared preoccupation with the materiality of the film or video apparatus (and by extension the image streams it carries). Such attention to the spatialization of media is particularly evident in Michael Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story, 1974, in which a screen is suspended in the middle of the gallery with films projected onto both sides. While each film shows a woman engaged in various simple actions, the “two sides” do not match up, suggesting that unlike a coherent sculptural form which links “front” to “back,” the screen may operate as a point of rupture, a kind of black hole of experience.

“Into the Light” certainly provides an occasion for various kinds of theoretical or thematic reflection, but it does little to shape them for a lay audience. Doing so would have involved making the exhibition itself a form of knowledge whose sequence, spatial juxtaposition, and supplemental material all pull together to make a visual argument. Ironically, it is just such visual rhetorics that characterize television’s vexed relation to history. In place of conventional literary narrative, TV registers history as a flow of images that, as Jameson noted, leaves little if any mnemonic residue. As a visual medium that is less constrained by commercial strictures than television, the museum exhibition could provide a laboratory for making meaningful history from the procedures of visual montage. By allowing the flow of images—works of art—to stand still for a while, projects like “Into the Light” may serve as an antidote to our assiduous labors of forgetting.

David Joselit is associate professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine.