Has video art made a comeback?
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) cros