Meditative Continuity: New Video Works by Mary Lucier
Mary Lucier: New Installation Works at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.
March 7 to April 20, 2013
514 West 25 Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-941-0012
In “The Painter of Modern Life”, Baudelaire envisions a painter of “the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.” He also condemns photography, which for him too easily gratifies the popular desire for images. But Baudelaire’s words about the painter could well apply to video artist Mary Lucier, whose latest piece, Wisconsin Arc, combines constructions of light and contrapuntal movement with a sympathetic documentation of everyday life. In this highly formalized record of bourgeois recreation, comparable to Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on the Grande Jatte, Lucier engages both popular culture and high artistic ideals.
These new videos were made during two years of teaching in Milwaukee. The works unfold progressively in the gallery, beginning with a three-minute flat screen video at the entrance. Like the predella to an altarpiece, this loop, visible from the street, entices viewers with narrative scenes, leading into “Wisconsin Arc”, the more ambitious projection in the inner gallery. There’s indeed some sense of a chapel in that chamber, with benches before large images of Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum, whose monumental window onto Lake Michigan creates a cathedral-like space, with networks of reflected light.
Shot on a beach near the museum, the more documentary and informal “predella” video, entitled Beauty and the Beast, follows a Hmong family group filming one another on the shore, seemingly aware of Lucier’s camera on them: observing and being observed. Lucier implicitly acknowledges this fundamental condition of our public life, while the obvious fact of the family’s ethnicity leaves open the question of what social divisions underlie the popular democracy of the beach. As viewers pass into the inner gallery and the more sophisticated recreational context of the art museum, the passage is hung with video stills printed on silk, suspended like prayer flags along the gallery wall. These exemplify the multiple potentials of digital images, including their commercial value. The passage might reference the museum shop with its omnipresent commodification of culture. Like the question of ethnic diversity, the issue of art’s complicity in Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” is acknowledged but left open.
These undertones of contemporary media ethnography give way to a starkly formal image in the opening section of Wisconsin Arc, a close-up of a glass with ice cubes. Centered hugely in the frame, it creates a lens through which we view the distorted figures of passers-by on a distant walkway. The message implicit in this surrogate eye is the camera’s authority, as it imposes itself on the visual process. Its active intervention is only extended in the editing of the next two sections.
If we think in musical terms, the middle section would be the scherzo, with its hyperactive pace, as amateur performers move through the space in front of Calatrava’s giant window. Along with this intricately choreographed sequence come layered images of the beach and the lake, dissolving the architectural frame while introducing footage of the family from the “predella” video.
The final section is the longest, set to the leisurely pace of a group of walkers. Now down on the beach itself, the camera tracks a panoramic vista as it picks up and follows a man and two women who are carrying their own cameras. The man acknowledges Lucier with a glance before strolling on into what becomes a fugue of layered tracking shots. Sequences of the group overlap with one another and combine with other shots until the initial group re-emerges, approaching us again, and the procession repeats itself. By varying the opacity of the layers, and manipulating the speed of the projection, Lucier treats the people and landscape as visual elements in a larger composition.
Indeed, the sixteen-minute duration of this loop prolongs the simple pleasure of viewing and being viewed into a timeless, meditative continuity. Given our conditioned expectation of quick editing and punchy messages, it comes as a mild surprise each time the group reappears for yet another swing along the beach. For those who recognize the musical accompaniment – the intro to Jerry Butler’s “For Your Precious Love” – the continuity extends into the past, into a primeval ‘fifties realm, before the invention of video art.
This attitude towards time distinguishes Wisconsin Arc from Street, a video by James Nares currently featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nares has recorded passersby in New York in slowed motion and heightened detail, like Lucier, but where Nares emphasizes a sequential movement through space and time, Lucier layers her sequences to create a less linear, more forgiving temporal structure. Like the Soviet experimental filmmaker Dziga Vertov in “Man with a Movie Camera”, which concludes on a human eye merged with a camera lens, she integrates time, space, people and technology.