The true philosophy is in learning to see the world again.
Merlo Pontii M.(1)
Video art as a product of new visual culture of the late 20th century has been debated since the moment of its appearance in the United States. From the time when in late 1960s Nam Jun Pike and his associates from the team of composer J. Cage created the first pieces of video art, one may reckon that «creative revolution» that had been gradually prepared by various forms of contemporary art, finally came about…
In the age of quickly developing technologies and TV, video art emerged as a natural step in the evolution of methods and means for visual arts and their synthesis. To a certain extent it has helped realize artists’ dream harboured from the times of Renaissance, which had to do with technical issues, of how to «enliven» the image and give it motion in space. And a screen in a darkened space has become thought about as an analogy to a painting. What is important is that this new art, as in the former times, reproduced images, and the means, as everybody knows, is the matter of time in which it exists. Today, when artificially created worlds have not yet ceased to amaze us, video art has been able to develop its own creative system and language, employing terra incognita of virtual reality.
Yet there was another factor to the emergence of video in the United States, and that was related to the movement of American intellectuals against the sway of the TV. That is why, despite the decades that elapsed, it has preserved its generic features: social and political concern, irony, anti-glamour and criticism of mass culture standards. Given the simplification and consumer taste averaging generated by mass media, one may think that in the modern society video art positions itself as a camp of social and ethical resistance. Many video pieces have intentionally minimalist aesthetics, are programmatically boring, sophisticated, unappealing, difficult to unravel and generally «remote from people». What is left of the high art is the moral stance, despite post-modernist irony over «all and sundry» of ethical and aesthetical imperative.
Due to the above characteristics, video art is being continuously debated both here and in the West. However, the very nature of the debate reveals curious aspects of spectator’s experience and professional level of experts and artists.
In the West new things always meet interest and are perceived as natural manifestation of artistic freedom. There are developed traditions of historical vanguard, neo-vanguard, etc., which are understood as continuous search for new ways of personality’s self-expression. From the time the man started to shape a sculpture or draw images, he constantly searched for appropriate medium, that is, he changed his means, be it a piece of clay, a wall, or a canvas. The question is What is the story the artist wants to tell and will it be interesting to others? So high is the status of an artist and everything associated with it.
Developed over a long years of soviet period a habit of living in isolation, as well as calloused notions about limited and allowable range of influences and traditions, have made people always feel negative about anything new and unusual. Questions of whether video art is an art in a traditional sense of the word, whether is has mandatory archetypes and «deep national roots», and whether it all matches our ideas about our mentality repress an urge to take a closer look at the search and result of contemporary artist’s work. Anticipating the analysis of video art in Central Asia I shall respond: centuries-old mindset bearing the national culture is being inevitably and continuously replenished with new strata, but many of its strata may reduce over time, deferring space to new ones and changing the notion of what national art «looks» like. Therefore, it is not only important to understand the laws of contemporary art development, but it is important to be very sensitive to the artist’s search in early 21st century, who asserts his right to work on the crossroads of different cultures, in the circle of the most unexpected traditions, on the level of philosophical and linguistic experiment. It is hard to imagine that a contemporary artist of the 21st century can indeed work in the «world’s picture» of a medieval master, expressing the perceptions of the latter. But it is another matter how, using the most diverse techniques and forms, through a different subject-matter, one can find ways to express nation’s spiritual quest that would be interesting to people and bring them closer.
Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we get exposed to or hide from the present, we (more precisely — art) are still in the situation of post-modernism. (This now fashionable word is often identified with Post-Modern and can already be found in many articles authored by our art historians, although, unfortunately, there is no sound understanding of it.)
Other types of perceiving the world, the loss of reality in art in the context of globalization and Internet, which are turning the world into a «global village», have seriously shattered traditional, formerly stable, notions and concepts. Ontological strategy and principles of philosophic and artistic cognition in general have changed. As is well known, the 20th century has completed the deconstruction of Western-type rationality and went to look for new ideas, new «languages», and to the search for differences.
Preoccupied with our «internal» problems, only as the 20th century expired, we began to become aware of massive problems facing contemporary world with its threats and challenges of technocratic world, environmental disasters, and man’s new existence. But in a sense, the situation of post-modernism may have good prospects for us, with its ideas of multi-polar and multi-cultural world and constellations of different cultures, the situation that left «repressive» Euro-centrism to the past. Now, having lost much, the West is searching the East for the missing, as the mystery of the world remains unravelled…
At the same time art is under great strain and pressure from modern age, when many 20th century illusions, as well as seemingly unassailable ideas of humanism and utopias, collapsed. Attempts to hold reality in the information flows turn into the loss of a human being and his wholesome attitude to the world. Still, as correctly noted by contemporary art theoretician B. Oliva, multimedia fails to question Art, for it is always important for an artist to express new, unknown before experience of the world, and even with the help of new technology to express something that is deep-felt and human, despite the irony, simulacres, fragmented-ness, bifurcations and other frights of post-modernism.
Proof that it is the main and promising way for contemporary art is the work of prominent American artist Bill Viola, also known as Rembrandt of video art. Deeply imbued with ideas of Sufism and of Oriental mystics, Viola contemplates the situation in contemporary art: «In 1260 Persian poet and mystic Rumi said, ‘Every single moment the world is born and dies, so know that for you death and rebirth are hidden in every instant’. Today the poet could have used the same language to speak about modern video and digital technologies, the essence of which is close to that of humans, and fragile ontological nature of shimmering, moving images gives birth to new humanism in the 21st century art, five hundred years on from the Renaissance. Like in the age of Renaissance, thriving new art today is fed by the interaction between art and science — on international scale and in the form of new technology». When the master was asked about the most important thing for him in art, he said that he was most interested in the invisible world he associated with the teachings of mystics. Important for him is an art that «captures the entire consciousness — memory, intellect, deep-laid psychology». He wants the viewers entering a dark room to «go through an experience — not with their mind, or eyes, or ears, but with their entire being».(2)
By 1990s video art becomes the most widespread not even type but format of contemporary art — the most flexible of artistic languages, not shy of straightforwardness of expression and allowing any intonation — ironic, extremely lyrical, inspirational. Naturally, after the sway of post-war abstractionism and pop art, the new language of the virtual, which now had a reality in it, although an imaginary one, brought new impulses of perception and experience in art.
As noted by researchers, when one looks at video in each individual country, one should discuss it at length, as video is a «window» into society. Our situation is special in a way that new technology paves its way here with difficulty. Despite the eagerness of our artists to explore new forms, they are held back by the absence of sponsor support and technical facilitation. So, the history of Central Asian video art began at the point when an interested curator was found. In 2004, owing to a large-scale regional project titled «Video-Identity. Sacral Places of Central Asia» devised by a curator from Kazakhstan V. Ibraeva and supported by The Christensen Fund, artists from the region created their first video works. It should be noted that new means of expression and new capabilities offered by video have influenced a change in creative self-identification of some artists and the art picture in the region at large. At the same time, regional specificity began to manifest itself: the newness of artistic ideas and language that for many western colleagues has turned into a fetish of contemporary art, is not the most important thing in the video work of Central Asian artists. In this case an attempt to draw comparison between the artists from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is made to identify differences in aesthetic approaches, in ways these are adapted to means and trends, as well as to demonstrate originality of video art development in each culture.
There are several artists in Uzbekistan who have begun to work in video, owing to the «Video-Identity. Sacral Places of Central Asia» project. They are V. Akhunov. E. Kambina, S. Tychina, A. Nikolaev, and Y. Useinov. Video work titled Ugol (The Corner) by S. Tychina demonstrates problems and paradoxes of the search, of preserving the authenticity of one’s place in the world. According to the artist, the idea of the film is to show man’s aspiration to gain individuality, his own mental space and authenticity.
In the wake of the Video-Identity project, A. Nikolaev works most intensely. He is actively searching for his own individuality in the context of the abovementioned trends. In his works the artist reflects upon modern society and reveals intricate blends of Western rationalism and Oriental metaphor.
A video work by Nikolaev Khochu v Golivud (I want to go to Hollywood) is an ironic narration about a young man who became hostage of his dream to reach the glorious Olympus of the Western movie stars. We watch how gradually, frame after frame, he looses his individuality trying to comply with the stereotype. This «fragment» of a philistine’s life is actually presented as a shard of once grand «picture of the world» as seen by the soviet man, his myths of the West, and is shown as complexes of a sovok*. Aesthetics in this work is deliberately not of a directed film — it is akin to amateur filming. This creates an effect of getting into a private world of an individual who is not shy to copy, imagining he is one of his idols.
The combination of Oriental existentialism and social problems is studied in the film Dom (The House). The artist is wondering whether the authenticity of the traditional world has been kept or it is just a form of backwardness and conservativeness of the society. However that may be, the artist thinks, regardless of political systems and ages of time, Orient has preserved its primeval irrationality and mystery.
Characteristic of Uzbekistan’s artist is calm narration and research-like method in approaching man’s problems. In the work by E. Kambina Territoriya neprikasaemykh (The Territory of the Untouchable) produced in the aesthetics of a documentary, there is also an attempt not only to look into this intricate world created by imagination and the will of a self-taught sculptor, but also, through the character of a lonely old man, to touch upon problems of everyone’s existence. Video art of Uzbekistan, just as the culture at large, is characterized by an aspiration to express the balance between objective reality and spirit, but beyond the limits of contemporary problem set.
Artists from Kazakhstan boldly work in different trends, bringing the relevant problems of contemporary society into the range of the emerging art. Therefore, there is also reflection on the political context in the works of E. Meldibekov, flesh and straightforward sexuality displayed by R. Khalfin, poetic and mystical visions of A. Menlibaeva. Typical to all of them is working with video as with technology that modernizes contemporary national culture, but on the basis of traditional dimensions and ethno-cultural ideas.
In the video art of Kazakhstan there are many prominent masters of actuals, and not only in Almaty, but also in Shymkent and Karaganda. What is common to them is that not only are they radicals in their approach, but they also develop social anthropology and pose critical questions about the existence of the Kazakhs in the space of new social reality. As Kazakhstan’s theoreticians emphasize, currently developing are trends such as nomadic romanticism, documentaries, video performances, video installations, decorativism, retro.
Said Atabekov has evolved into one of the most brilliant video artists of Kazakhstan. His interest is in legends, he «revives» the characters of ancient myths, laminating them with modern day clich?s and new crippled mythifications. For example, in his Noyev kovcheg (Noah’s Ark) the artist mocks the craze of creating new legends. According to the latter, the Ark landed not on the Mount Ararat, but on the Mount Kazkurt not far from Shymkent. The main character, the dervish, against the background sound of non-existing sea, is sailing-walking through the mountains and neighborhoods and sees miserable life, ruin, piles of chemical waste, smoking plants… This is a black-and-white video of very economical but expressive visual techniques and means. Refrains, rhythm and the vastness of landscapes are caprivating; they create something truly magical and yet starkly modern.
Naturally, as a burgeoning art in the region, video art not only borrows from different arts in terms of expressive means, but also, due to rich technical capabilities, enables working originally and boldly with «cultural memory», extracting new aesthetic peculiarities in the categories of time and space. Artists move their characters into the past, into the continuum of everyday existence of different worlds — real and virtual. In the work by A. Menlibaeva Stepnoe barokko (Steppe Baroque), like in a fantastic dream, female figures appear as ancient idols, female bodies transform, divide into two, reflect in a mirror — all in a peculiar show of nude girls and brightly coloured oriental drapery. In the spirit of post-modernism, in her piece A. Menlibaeva is using traditional symbols and ideas of nomadic culture — nature, totem animals, spirits of ancestors — filling her work with the strategy of opposing the habitual, with baroque-like expressivity of all forms, which free the tradition from static conservation. The artist’s harsh approach contrasted with decorative sophistication of the drapery provokes a thought that today the connection between the man and nature is far from idyllic (burning steppe, naked bodies on the asphalt, the snarling of the characters).
Artist from Kyrgyzstan also demonstrate different approaches, but they are less politicized and less radical compared to those from Kazakhstan. In my view, despite the fact that video art is young, there is an on-going intensive process of self-identification and evolution of interesting principles in two groups of artists. The first groups includes Ulan Japarov (Krepkiy oreshek [Hard-to-Break Nut], Plyvyot korablik [Here Sails a Ship]), Gulnara Kasmalieva and Murat Jumaliev (Svecha [Candle], V budushchee [To the Future]) who create improvising, study-like but capacious and laconic poetical novellas. There are irony, the display of stupidity and ugliness of contemporary social types (Blin** art [Pancake Art] by U. Japarov), there is also refined aestheticism in the works based on traditional rituals (M. Jumaliev).
The second group is represented by young artists «Bronepoezd» («Armoured Train») from Almaty and Bishkek. They are Aleksandr U and Roman Moskalyov. One can immediately recognize their hand in the work Skorbyashchie (The Grieving): irony over the established concepts and taste standards imposed by the clich?s of soviet ideology, over the absurdity of many aspects of our lives. The style of the video is determined by the use of 16 mm film and an obsolete soviet-time camera that enable achieving retro-sensations, experimenting with memory and images of those times. In the works of this kind, video presents itself as an extremely personal art. Due to its specific «realism» this is not a representation of objective reality, but an extreme accuracy in following the subjective reality of our inner world and the models of our consciousness.
Liubov k vechnomu (Love for the Timeless) by Roman Moskalyov and Maksim Boronilov in a sense reflects one of the trends in post-modernism art that responds to the problems of an individual being taken over by globalization «monster» with an interest to a micro-event of one’s private life, finding in it the cause for both irony and sincere empathy. A story of a lonely young man who is trying to do himself in is true to the limit, done in the spirit of home video, very personal, and has a special «realism» telling about the 1990’s youth.
The recent decades have made it evident that internationalization of artistic languages, as well as the situation of post-modernism with its orientation towards fragmentation, difference in plastic «languages» and gestures have given new relevance to the significance of cultural memory — collective and subjective. However, the understanding of it is not reduced to any static state of conservation, but is shown as «individual nomadism» (A. Olieva), freedom to roam through traditions and cultures and stop at one’s own «crossroads». When creating video images through modernization of traditional cultural symbols and concepts, artist from our region do not resort to the prevalence of technology, and thus they do not elevate the technology to the status of a cultural phenomenon.
Contemporary art, as it is known, experiences pressure from the world of technology every minute and on every territory, and, nevertheless, as we have seen, representatives of both Western and local art are trying to stay committed to the ideas of common sense and harmony, to the search for the aspect of life that are getting lost. At the same time one can feel how the mentality of every artist is undoubtedly pulsing in the new technology, seen through traditions and quotations, explaining in practice such concept of post-modernism as «palimpsest».
If one turns to look at the best pieces by contemporary video artist, such as B. Viola, S. Nishat and Mark Vollinger, one can notice that with the help of a rich digital technology arsenal they develop a strategy to counter American-style homologization, pressure from globalization, technocratic fetishes and the imposition of electronic media rules aimed at glorification of the «eternal» present. In this environment we have an opportunity to actualize in the contemporary art the huge potential of the Orient, for «Western philosophy can learn from the Oriental one how to contract an alliance with existence» (3, p.117). So, as the post-modernist philosophers write, the world is as it is… and as such it is portrayed by the actual art.
- Мерло Понтии М. Феменология восприятия. СПб., 1999.
- Послание Б. Виолы к конференции «Искусство видео» // НОМИ, 2003, № 6.
- Мерло Понтии М. Восток и философия // В защиту философии.