The Revolutionary Road of Visual Art in Asia
The earliest phases of video art were linked inextricably with the development of television technology and its video production processes. During the first decades of the 20th century, before the first television images were broadcast, people could only experience moving images through projectors in movie theaters. Then, in 1938, the first television was created in the US and its development continued until, in the 1950s, the related technology became commonplace and the television swept into the homes of ordinary people everywhere. Television media and broadcast images became an indispensable part of life and mass culture in the 20th century-and in the process, changed forever our modes of visual perception and appreciation. Soon artists began taking up television as a new creative medium. The earliest example may have been TV Decoll/age, a creation of German artist Wolf Vostell in which six TV monitors were hidden behind a large white canvas, with slashes in the canvas that allowed viewers glimpses of their changing electronic images. Vostell transformed the television into a new artistic medium, formally inaugurating a new era in which it began to morph into what would be a kind of 20th century form of sculpture. In so doing, he directly attacked the notion that there was only one proper format for television viewing, and announced clearly that televisions would no longer just be receivers of broadcasts intended for household viewing. The art world's use of video as a medium can be traced to 1965, when the great contemporary video artist Nam June Paik, riding in a taxi, used the just-released SONY Portapak to make a spontaneous recording of the Pope and his entourage moving down Fifth Avenue, which he publicly aired that evening at New York's Cafe Au Go-Go. Paik created new potentials for video art with his quirky and non-commercial methods of filming and presentation, and he declared at the time that "as collage technique replaced oil paint, the cathode-ray tube will push the easel and canvas to one side, and it will become the newly emergent channel for expressions of visual art." At the point when artists began using the photographic and video mediums and sound and film editing as creative channels, they set the future direction for contemporary multi-media, concept, and installation art, and video art was established as a specialized creative field in its own right.
Video artists in the early days of the medium felt barred from entry into museums; their work conflicted with the pre-established value system behind museum collections, and fundamental issues of reproduction and technological display raised doubts when viewed from the perspectives of traditional painting and sculpture. But finally, after decades of debate and discussion, video art is now receiving well-deserved recognition and appreciation. More and more important museums around the world are making room in their exhibition spaces for the special visual dynamics of this medium and its moving images, and video art is also finding a place in the sphere of the private collector. Now that the medium has arrived, we can see in retrospect how, during its growth and development, video artists continually attempted to surpass the limitations of the medium and add greater beauty and variety to the audio-visual experience. The aesthetics of their work encompass our visual connections to print or three-dimensional media, but the addition of new expressive forms, growing out of the electronic media of the technological age, have created the special meaning and implications of video art.
The television, computer, camera, and video camera, following their invention or development in the 20th century, now directly influence and interact with our broadcast media and our most contemporary forms of art. Marshall McLuhan clearly glimpsed this possibility in his 1967 book, "The Medium is the Message," in which he pointed out, "Any one of our new media is in a sense a new language, a new codification of experience collectively achieved by new work habits and inclusive collective awareness." He went on to note in 1969 that "the new media are not ways of relating us to the old 'real' world; they are the real world, and they reshape what remains of the old world at will." McLuhan's views were a source of empowerment in the '60s, a clarion call that galvanized artists and behind which they could unite. The evolution of video art points to the special significance of our era, and prompts us to ask: Will be truly be able, on this foundation, to build a system of aesthetics and market values that derive from and extend these creative concepts? May we even be able to use the diverse, evolving possibilities of this medium to reinterpret the Eastern cultural outlook of Asian contemporary art and its aesthetic contributions?
Cultural Role Identification
Video art, first conceived in the 1960s, has been with us for a significant period of time, yet many people retain only the vaguest notions of what the medium is all about. From the broadest perspective, the term "visual installations" refers to the special methods by which video media are used to create installations in space. For an artist like Nam June Paik, video appealed not merely as a convenient, low-cost medium, but more importantly, because the images he captured could be transmitted immediately. The naturalness and real-time image capture of the medium also held special meaning for Paik due to his strong concern with themes of time (and memory). Whereas movies involve drawn-out processing and production phases, in video, images can be captured immediately and instantly displayed. The challenging and subversive thinking Paik experienced during his early-period work in Fluxus was absorbed and extended into the unique spontaneity of his later work and development. In an extension of Dadaist thinking, Paik's work seeks to evoke a non-rational state through we escape order and predictability, and in which traditional aesthetics are redefined by overthrowing the viewer's dependence on logical thought to interpret the changes in the surrounding world. Paik explores the varied ways technology links to different cultures; he displays awareness of the question of self-definition and asks how, within the global vision produced by modern media technology, it will be possible for Asians to retain their own Eastern cultural logic and their own vocabulary of beauty and aesthetics.
Paik has exerted a far-reaching influence on all aspects of video art. He entered the first wave of inventors in the field of video technology when he and video engineer Shuya Abe developed the Paik/Abe video synthesizer, which he used to process and colorize television images. Paik then went on to create electronic collages of distorted images that were remarkable especially for their intense, dazzling color, establishing an important landmark and a new visual vocabulary for later examination of issues surrounding images and culture. A classic example from the 1990s is a work Paik produced to represent Germany at the 45th Venice Biennial in 1993, The Rehabilitation of Genghis Khan (Lot 1038), a stunning masterpiece and a representative work that fully displays Paik's fusion of video, installation art, and Eastern concepts.
What is certain is that the special narrative structure of the video installation, based on extended running times and sound and images in constant motion, precisely transmits to the viewer the tremendous varieties of subtle, hidden emotional metaphor and narrative concepts intended by the artist. For Paik, the TV symbolizes the power of the media's role in linking differing cultural backgrounds, and the television monitor has for many years been a distinctive creative element representing this artist in showings of his work.
Challenging Aesthetic Standpoints
While video art appears to give the artist tremendous scope for expressing a particular aesthetic outlook, it nevertheless demands from the outset that the focus remain on art itself, this being one respect in which video art cannot be differentiated from the traditional disciplines of painting or sculpture. The use of images in video art, however, must be recognized as distinct from their use in the fields of documentary of news reporting, given the restrictive burden of factualism placed upon them there. Regardless of the degree of artistry with which images are manipulated in those fields, we recognize a fundamental distinction between what we defined as "art" and what remains merely "artful," despite the semantic relationship between those terms. While artful technical ingenuity give commercial television and advertising an appealing liveliness, technical ingenuity does not in itself constitute art. That is something that resides only in the creative intent of the artist, whose concepts and creations are not colored by considerations beyond those of pure art.
In 1936, Walter Benjamin's critical essay "The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction" foresaw the way in which photographic reproduction of images would influence creative art. Today, the impact of digital media has taken "the image" a step beyond its original meaning of the photographic or video image to include technologically produced computer images, created using software platforms for editing and processing, and even the production of 3-D images. The artist's fundamental aesthetic work with images has now been transferred to a production process that takes place on a computer screen, making it seemingly an extension of the camera lens. The computer's facility at producing and editing images and for creating special effects makes it a powerful integrator of all types of images, and beyond its capabilities for creating digital images, it too serves as a broadcast platform. The computer's convenient combination of production and display capabilities made it an indispensable tool for the artistic developments of the '90s.
Ever since the classical periods of Western civilization, people have seen presentations of the human form as a representation of idealized forms or perfect beauty. In the post-modernist culture of the '60s, a period rife with popular images and symbols, the human image became a ready-made product for appropriation by artists; they used it in reactionary presentations of pre-existing or classic images, or in experimental works that "reworked" images by means of recontextualization, reproduction, imitation, or dislocation. The concept of "the recreated body" emphasizes how individual features may be at odds with the normal or classical ideal, and relates to the willing or unwilling acceptance of various kinds of adornment or reshaping of one's body. It may include makeup, masks, or body painting, perhaps even cosmetic surgery with artistic or aesthetic goals in mind, and also includes the deliberate reshaping or distortion of the human form in works of art.
Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura once said, "If we could liberate ourselves from the bodies and personalities which we were given, and could put together bodies and personalities as we wished, then to talk about 'the real face' of a person would ultimately become meaningless." In his works Portrait-Poppy and Portrait (Queen and Dog) (Lot 1566), Morimura uses the techniques of photography to appropriate classic visual images from Western art history and to dress himself as figures appearing in them. Then, posing for a photograph with one of his own reproductions of famous paintings as background, he creates multiple "selves" that include the process of re-making himself as a costumed figure in the painting. Switching genders through transvestitism, Morimura divests himself of his original gender role, his divergent behavior a rebellion against the natural characteristics of his own gender and a completion of his image of the female who is not female or feminine. Morimura challenges the stereotypical image of the male along with the symbols of femininity, and questions existing modes of identification and ideas about self-concept.
A classic work of Morimura's is his series Self-Portraits After Rembrandt (Lot 1565), photo portraits in an autobiographical mode that are based on paintings and explore issues of role and gender. Morimura takes the most civilized highbrow culture or the trashiest pop culture and proceeds to refit them and inject them with new conceptual meaning in line with his own understanding and according to his own methods. Morimura's pop-culture derivations of classical works and his courageous strategy of self-disintegration are the means by which he transcends gender and Eastern or Western culture, attempting to realize what he has often confessed is a search for the multitude of potentials within himself. Morimura seeks not only to reconcile the schism between the male self and the female self, but the divisions between the Eastern world and the Western world.
The Gaze of Eastern Philosophy
The rapid development of computer hardware and software in the 15 years between 1980 and 1995 also quickly narrowed the distance between video and animation, and the fundamental definitions that differentiate them. New digital formats such as the CD (Compact Disk) or DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) allowed immediate storage and access to images, along with other new formats such as Mini DV digital tape and the use of 3D animation and non-linear editing software. The combination of computerization and video technology after the 1980s represented, historically, a new point of departure for the visual arts, giving artists the opportunity for a full-scale reexamination of language, sound, and image.
Most video artists since the '80s and '90s have turned their attention toward personal narratives as an expression of their search for freedom and personal cultural identification. In Japan, where the post-war period brought a focus on social and economic development, the powerful advances in computer animation created a developmental environment for contemporary video art and a cultural vocabulary that were exceptionally rich and unique to their era. The work of Japanese animator Mamoru Oshii employs freeze-frame images with intense contrasts of light and shadow in which characters engage in internal soliloquies. Oshii's injection of intense personal feeling and his visualization of deep psychological activity sharpens the contrast between his fictional space and the real world, and highlights awareness of his Eastern modes of thought. This was a unique cultural standpoint that has directly influenced the expressive vocabularies and conceptual frameworks of contemporary Japanese video artists. For Masakatsu Takagi, video is a highly personalized medium with vast powers and potentials for expression. In his 2007 Philharmony (Lot 1661), Masakatsu works like a painter trying to get a feel for the way a pigment works on the canvas. He uses photographs taken in Nepal and, one by one, edits and recreates their original portrayals; along with the interactive effects of light and shadow, Masakatsu as a trained musician also gives the audio track a central place in the work. As viewers follow the rising and falling melodies of his piano accompaniment and the whisperings that seem to make up the work's narration, they reflect on the peaceful, joyful realm of Eastern philosophical thought. Life, death, the soul, religious life-all the basic elements of Eastern mysticism-are the subjects Masakatsu explores in his work. His Lava (Lot 1660) is a meditation on "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" and its abstract thinking on life and liberation, exploring the mutual links between living souls, and at the same time, in the course of the video, searching for any lines that divide the self from eternity.
Since its beginnings in the 1960s, video technology has now become, in addition to the camera, one of the most important creative tools employed by many artists. Video presentation has opened up entirely new modes of thought, breaking across media boundaries, while the ceaseless experimentation and innovation of video artists in media and creative forms has opened up new vistas for digital art. In China, video art has taken root somewhat more slowly than elsewhere, its artists mostly working in documentary forms that explore the status of the individual in relation to their nation and society.
China's development of video art has never felt the burden of academic theory and expectation, since from the beginning it had never been supported by its own set of theoretical underpinnings. Artists directly took it as a means for a broader artistic expression and linked it closely to the production of their conceptual art, and their work did in fact constitute a new form of communication, a uniquely Chinese type of video art. Chen Shaoxing's Ink City (Lot 1664) employs digital photography in a way that seems to freeze our "persistence of vision," the after-images of our brains' perceptive mechanisms, solidifying them and saving them accurately as images of urban life. Chen uses traditional painting techniques to process his images, through which he injects the lapses and omissions that more closely resemble the character of our own memory processes. In the timeline of the video medium, he edits the images into an order that corresponds with memory, while the accompanying soundtrack acts as a linking element in the moment-by-moment progression. The creative process behind Ink City proceeds thus: photography-painting-video. Which is to say, a recording with digital technology is followed by manual reproduction and filtering, and finally, editing that produces a linear timeline with an added soundtrack. A production process of this kind subjects the elements of reality to an initial conversion and then to further successive conversions, as if the outer skin of an object is first peeled off and then its inner layers removed until what remains is a skeletal core. The progression through three different media, peeling away the reality retained in human memory layer by layer, enhances our acquaintance with the object portrayed and deepens our feelings toward it.
Video art can be considered one of the most plastic and malleable of any of our contemporary art forms. It coexists with traditional painting and sculpture, while linking to new forms and new media such as installations and interactive art. Indian video art, in particular, has developed as an intense reflection on its mass media and its unique social phenomena, and as a meditation on and criticism of its intensely materialistic values. Navin Rawanchaikul's Navins of Bollywood (Lot 1662) employs an epic scale and all the brilliant color of a Bollywood movie poster, creating a narrative that unites painting and video and presents images of modern city life in a dual reality where fictional space coexists with the real world.