Friday, 29 May 2015

Video art - do I need to watch the whole thing?

How long should you spend looking at a painting in a gallery? Ten minutes? Ten seconds?

If you visit a gallery you will notice that most people spend only a few seconds looking at a painting. I count myself among those. And half of my time is probably spent looking at it very-close-up because I have an abiding interests in the materials and methods that the artist used.

Partly, this speed-dating with paintings is induced by the infrequency with which I visit galleries and the imagined need to see-everything. While the artist probably hoped that the painting would garner much more of my attention, there is no way that they could have insisted on that. It's not as if they could have specified a recommended time.

With video art, the artist has chosen how long you are expected to attend. Well, up to a point.

The Bill Viola installation "Second Coming" in St Paul's Cathedral in London is complete in less than 10 minutes. It is sufficiently compelling that one might want to watch it on repeat. And of course, if you don't find it compelling, you can just walk away. Rather like switching channels. But, by shooting the video to be a certain length, there is effectively an artist-recommended viewing time. That said, Viola's work has no narrative (or sound) and is easy to dip into. It's more like a moving painting than it is like a movie.

This video installation by Piplotti Rist is entitled Ever is Over and is shown here in a two screen format that runs for about three minutes. Different from the Bill Viola work, this one appears to have a narrative and compels us to continue watching because we want to know what happens. Not all video art has a narrative. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it isn't necessary.

My contribution, at the head of this post, is a ten second loop. So, when you've seen ten seconds, it loops and you see it all again. You may be so fascinated that you have to watch it for longer but that is most likely only if you are trying to work out what it is.

Which brings me to the other compelling question I find myself faced with when looking at video art. What is it?

Both Viola and Rist have given their works titles, which explain something, and in a gallery setting will be accompanied by notes explaining some of the context.

Without a title, the work needs to be self-explanatory or not to need explanation. Can just look at it for its entertainment value? Sometimes I think a work is worthy of more respect if it can hold your attention without a title, without an explanation.

This is just as true (perhaps even more true) for a painting. Another of my gallery obsessions (i.e. bad habits) is to read the label placed there by the curator. I might spend longer reading the label than I do looking at the work. Why? I'm not so sure. I need to know who it's by, perhaps. And I don't appear to be unusual. Sit in a gallery sometime and watch the other punters. They glance at the work, read the label, realise it's not by someone they've heard of and move on. Maybe galleries should stop labelling works. And stop hanging so much stuff.

That said, an untitled work may well be improved by an explanation. Especially video art.

If I take my untitled work and give it a title, the viewer's interpretation will be changed. Try it. Choose a title and see if you don't view it differently
  1. Four Eyes
  2. Heart of Darkness
  3. Suddenly realising that I am all alone
Perhaps a more appropriate way to exhibit video art is with an explanation embedded somewhere in the video, sufficient to tantalise the viewer to remain at least until they have understood the relationship between title and work.

Not much room for an explanation in ten seconds though.