Santa Fe


The elemental throb of nature and the engineered pulse of electronic circuitry make for a potent combination in Steina’s current retrospective at SITE Santa Fe. Steina and her husband, Woody Vasulka, have lived in Santa Fe since 1980. Yet longtime viewers will see immediately that the style of low-end installation that they pioneered together (banks of old TV sets and military-industrial gadgets) is long gone. Glamorous new gear—Steina’s seminal work, The West, 1983, is shown here on a twenty-one-monitor LCD flat-screen ziggurat—makes the work appear newly sleek and sumptuous.

Six large-scale video installations are the exhibition’s main event. These are constellated around the quieter imperatives of two small rooms, one filled with single-channel works from the 1970s, the other with videos from the ’80s and ’90s. An important part of Steina’s “history,” much of which she forged in experiments with a variety of collaborators, these archival videos are nonetheless often hilarious. Cantaloup, 1980, blurs the skin of the titular fruit into dotty grids accompanied by a voice-over explaining the meaning of the term pixel. Then it’s time for the horsing around. (Woody: “I’ve turned off the feedback. Let me just do some senseless movement.”)

If these modest works are the show’s liner notes, the multichannel installation videos are its operatic tour de force. Mynd, 2000, immerses the viewer in a sea of ethereal imagery, ocean waves becoming the manes of Icelandic ponies. The corners of the room fold two of the six projections in half, giving an impression of narrative sequence. The tension this illusion introduces enhances the force of Steina’s work; by unifying process and image, it establishes a visual of its own, then wraps the viewer inside it. For Borealis, 1983, the artist drove, near dawn, to a hot-water lake near Reykjavík. A sequence showing its froth and foam projected onto four floor-to-ceiling screens captures a colossal Steina, her shadow stretching over the water as the sun rises behind her.

The sound in Steina’s videos can augment or diminish their visual elements, leaving one feeling alternately revved up and hushed. Here, technology and nature are collaborators, a relationship expressed through sound. Pyroglyphs, 1995, which Steina made in collaboration with blacksmith Tom Joyce, animates the god in the forge with the percussive insistence of Joyce’s hammer strikes. The performative relationship that Steina has always had with video finds her filming Joyce tossing a blowtorch into a tub of water, its flame ghostly beneath the water and a plume of white smoke. Steina decidedly believes in magic. In Tokyo Four, 1991, she is a fascinated observer of the city. The culture offers the camera an endless parade of images—from elevator girls to the deer of Nara to Shinto shrines to supermarket shelves. The images close and open with a relentlessly repetitive rhythm.

Steina’s classical violin playing has featured in her work in video since the 1970s. She taped Violin Power, 1978, in her New York studio’s kitchen, hamming up the use of the bow; in Rome Performance, 2004, she is still playing violin, but her bow is now linked to a computer and alters prerecorded footage projected onto a screen behind her. An image of composer Trevor Wishart, for example, disorts, halving, quartering, and unfolding in floral, kaleidoscopic designs. Steina plays on.

Ellen Berkovitch