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Has video art made a comeback?

Minette Vari, installation at Standard Bank Gallery

In the early nineties when the famous Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor first encountered Wiliam Kentridge’s video art, his stop frame animation films, he was practically giving away the works for free or at least accepting a nominal fee – Enwezor recalled around R50. He was horrified – the animations, the films were at the core of Kentridge’s practice. They sell for a lot more than R50 now, but they remain undervalued, considering they put Kentridge on the art map.

The problem is that video art is a lousy status object – you can’t put it on permanent display. In 2008, at the first Joburg Art Fair, the France-based African curator Simon Njami cheekily titled a group exhibition of video art As you like it. It should have been titled Don’t like it - none of the video artworks sold, lamented Ross Douglas, the director of the fair. I expect this did not come as a surprise to Njami - in fact he may have hoped that none of the works would sell, had engineered it to be so as part of a desire to insinuate 'art-art' into a hyper-commodified setting where it could not be so easily consumed.

It is easy to see why video art doesn’t sell; when it is badly done it is laborious to watch and an offence to the art of filmmaking. The production values are often poor and sound isn’t exploited. It is costly to produce and I suspect many artists cut corners. When it is done well, it can be exceptional; as Candice Breitz's ouevre/practice has proved. What is great about her work is that she exploits the medium quite fully, not only in terms of repurposing films that are already made, or making meta-film commentary (films about filmmaking) but she uses it to deliver many ideas - she doesn't make a single statement. The difference between a painting and a video work is comparable perhaps between a film and a series - a series can allow a story to unfurl past many layers.

Him + Her, which showed at the Joburg Art Fair in 2014, is the best example of this. In writing on it that year I was thrilled by the journey aspect and how Breitz uses film to reveal "layer after layer and while she forces you to confront some of the worst limits of femininity in this piece, she similarly leaves you wondering whether popular culture producers not only recreate these limits but whether the strictures are part of a filmic/narrative illusion that she can’t escape as an artist either."

I am delighted she has been chosen to represent our country at the Venice Biennale in 2017, though I do wonder what our pavillion will look like: a theatre with 2 video screens? Why not stay home and watch it all on Youtube? Video work has fast become a cheap way to show art; it is easy to transport, export and reproduce. This was one of the thoughts that (incidentally) crossed my mind when !Kauru (also involved with Venice) staged their Being and Becoming: complexities of the African Identity, which showed at the Unisa Art Gallery, in Pretoria. The majority of this exhibition was videowork. As I observed in my review of the show for Art Africa:

Some were shown on their own in separate makeshift viewing rooms, while other works were combined, thus juxtaposing works that could evoke new readings of them. Shadi’s Matsogo for example becomes about the connection between place and identity when juxtaposed with Helen Zeru’s (Ethiopia) video, One Foot In (2015) work where she digs up and removes a tree. The predominance of video work makes this a demanding exhibition to view as none of the works can be consumed in a glance; they are all time-demanding. The medium is an interesting aspect to consider in relation to the identity theme; that the titular complexities cannot be encapsulated in a static image. As Shadi implies in Matsogo, where she breaks down a slice of chocolate cake and remoulds it into other forms; identity is fluid and in a state of flux.

The judges of this year's Absa L'atelier award - South African Lerato Bereng, from Uganda (Daudi Karungi), Mauritius (Krishna Luchoomun), Ghana (Abdaliah Salisu), Kenya (Sylvia Gichia) and Botswana (Monica Selelo) - evinced a preference for video work. In reviewing this exhibition, also for Art Africa, I wondered whether this was due to a desire (like Njami's) to counter hyper commercial art or the commodification of art - the predominance of painting and object-based art is the most popular medium at art fairs and commercial establishments.

Despite all of these challenges the Goodman Gallery has opened up a new space in Cape Town dedicated to video art. Liza Essers, its owner, has always had an affinity for film, having dabbled in that industry.

The Goodman’s Video Room, which is attached to a new ground floor space on street level on Sir Lowry’s Road, opened with some ‘classic’ video artworks such as Rewind (2013), produced by Gerhard Marx, Philip Miller, Maja Marx and Catherine Myburgh. Interestingly some are Kentridge collaborators. This astonishing work sets an example for video art that few artists observe in the sense that film works best when it is a collaborative effort, involving a team of artists. This may also account for the medium’s lack of popularity; it denies the single artist genius myth.

Great art appears to flow when this is eschewed; the Marx’s responded visually to Miller’s audio monument to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, resulting in a powerful series of audio, visual tracks that probe loss, violence and the line between individual and collective pain and responsibility. The work probably isn’t for sale – what it offers is a live and visceral encounter with art that a conventional white cube experience can’t. That is where the value of video art lies. - some of this text appeared in an article in The Times.


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