Santa Fe

View of SITE Santa Fe Biennial, 2010.

View of SITE Santa Fe Biennial, 2010.

SITE Santa Fe Biennial

View of SITE Santa Fe Biennial, 2010.

That the term stop motion is affixed to a technique for making moving pictures seems something of a contradiction; then again, the animation that results from stitching together still images has become so commonplace that the words read like a familiar trade name. The overlapping realities of this antiquated technology’s concurrent obsolescence and triumphal ubiquity are precisely what animate “The Dissolve,” another term naming a somewhat old-fashioned film technique and now the title of the eighth installment of the SITE Santa Fe Biennial, cocurated by Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco.

“The Dissolve” opens with Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), a gorgeous take on The Arabian Nights, regarded as the oldest surviving feature-length animation, and Edison Manufacturing Company’s The Enchanted Drawing (1900), a clever stop-motion short in which a sketch of a face appears to have a life of its own. These classic pieces are repeatedly channeled by artists throughout the show (notably Kara Walker and Oscar Muñoz in the first gallery) and support an interpretation of the biennial’s title that speaks to the blurry superimposition of early animation techniques onto contemporary video art, as well as the current impulse of artists to incorporate animation into their painting, drawing, sculpture, and performance practices. Surprisingly, of the thirty works in this show—which includes videos by Paul Chan, Thomas Demand, Raymond Pettibon, Mary Reid Kelley, Cindy Sherman, and Dziga Vertov—only six make use of multichannel or sculptural elements; the rest relegate intermedia experimentation to the classic flickering frame of projection or monitor. However, each retains traces of the artist’s own hand, and nearly every work, whether via cartoon characters, shadow puppets, digitally modulated bodies, or live performance, reinforces the centrality of the figure to pictures in motion.

The show is laid out in three primary sections, divided not by theme but by mode of spectatorship. While one end of the exhibition privileges interfaces that recall contemporary personal devices such as laptop monitors and gaming devices, the other end emphasizes moving-image technologies such as the zoetrope and flip book that isolate the viewer no less. This concept is reinforced by the elegant exhibition design of Adjaye Associates. It is one of the most successful installations of video I’ve encountered (at least of those dominated by projection), the designers having cleverly renegotiated the space through the use of colored walls, translucent scrims, and directional speakers. Of the two works that retain standard black-box conventions—William Kentridge’s History of the Main Complaint, 1996, and Bill T. Jones and Open Ended Group’s After Ghostcatching, 2010, (screened in 3-D, glasses and all)—the latter demonstrates how viewing conditions, normally taken as a given, can be active components of the work itself.

The tension between video’s ephemerality and the materiality of its painted or drawn source characterizes the show’s hinging-point and is particularly evident in the work of Jacco Olivier, Berni Searle, and Ezra Johnson, which has been installed together in a circular open plan. Roughly based on midcentury movie trends such as Panavision or the Cinerama (which are of course reincarnations of even an older entertainment model, the panorama), the installation comprised of their work offers a welcome recess. The biennial’s two most outstanding pieces can also be found here: Maria Lassnig’s brutally honest anthem Maria Lassnig Kantate, 1992, an early ’90s film that has held up incredibly well, and Laleh Khorramian’s Water Panics in the Sea, 2010, a chaotic and hypnotic mixed-media animation that approximates total abstraction (a style noticeably missing from the galleries, but addressed by a related one-night screening event). It is to the curators’ credit that rather than overcontextualizing these artists’ efforts with historical precedents or a discussion of technological novelty, they permitted these works to simply exist side by side—two equally compelling visions, made twenty years apart, that tell of two very different eras and approaches to video practice. Modest contrasts such as this generate both the strength and nuance of this measured exhibition.

Catherine Taft