Video Art

By Catherine Elwes


A review of Sylvia Martin's study of Video Art

Sylvia Martin’s addition to the burgeoning catalogue of publications mapping the history of video art is, like its predecessors, a partial account. In common with earlier chronicles, her vision is dominated by American video history, but tempered by a useful bias in favour of her native Germany. Inevitably, other histories are omitted, for example, Polish, Canadian and British. However, in her discussion of individual artists, particularly those making their mark in the 1990s, she casts her net wider and includes valuable accounts of an international group including Gillian Wearing from the UK, Fiona Tan from Australia and Anri Sala, a native of Albania. These brief monographs form the bulk of the volume and contribute the most astute insights into video practices. One senses that Martin is writing here from direct observation of the work, mostly experienced at international festivals such as the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel. This means that her selection of artists is limited to those who are already sanctioned by the international circuit. However, Martin deserves credit for including underrated historical figures such as Nan Hoover whose early use of a macro lens recreated the human form as a primordial landscape anticipating the later explorations of female physiology including Mona Hatoum’s endoscopic video journey through her own body.

Steina and Woody Vasulka are given their well-deserved place in video history and Martin demonstrates a clear understanding of the technological innovations for which the Vasulkas can take credit. She might have added a discussion of the ideological position Woody defends: one that identifies the vertiginous abstractions of digital imaging as the only creative escape from conventional forms of representation. In common with other 1960s artists, Woody believes that representational images are tainted by the power relations embedded in the social order that spawned them.

The breadth of Martin’s research reveals itself in the links she perceives between the history of video and current practice. For instance, she points out that in Pipilotti Rist’s now famous pop-promo spoof, I’m not the girl who misses much (1986) the technical ‘interferences’ are forced upon a medium that had long since ironed them out. This nostalgia or perhaps gesture of homage to the early modernist period of video art was also evident in works by the American artist Sadie Benning who, in the late 1980s recreated the scan-line grain of early video by using a black and white toy camera.

Martin betrays a suspicion of politics throughout the book – an understandable reaction by her generation to the dictatorial tendencies of both Marxism and feminism. However, this leads her to underplay the oppositional strategies of artists like Martha Rosler whose classic Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) she interprets as a comment on the “neurotic character of the perfect television housewife”. In its contemporary context, when feminism was at its height, Rosler’s angry gesturing was more usually understood as a protest against the oppression of women, many of whom sank into domestic servitude while their husbands and brothers pursued careers.

In spite of these understatements, Martin’s accounts of individual video practices can be illuminating depending on the level of expertise a reader brings to her book. I for one enjoyed learning about the complicated detective work the Albanian artist Anri Sala undertook to reunite the sound with the pictures in a film he found featuring his mother making political statements under the communist regime in Albania. I also appreciated her exposition of Fiona Tan’s quest to forge an identity out of the fragmented ancestry she was bequeathed by a Chinese-Indonesian father and a Scottish-Australian mother. Martin quotes the artist speaking of a common contemporary phenomenon: “I have an identity defined only by what it is not” she declares, “I am a professional foreigner.” Occasionally, Martin’s description of a work has made me determined to find a way of seeing it. The Dutch artist Aernout Mik persuaded a group of old men to stage a fight against the Formica-normality of a fitted kitchen. It must be as disturbing to witness as Gillian Wearing’s Sasha and Mum (1996) in which a mother repeatedly attacked her half-naked teenage daughter.

From the perspective of the British Isles, I found Martin’s most amusing observation buried in a discussion of Wearing’s Broad Street (2001). “In England,” she writes, “drunken people, whether young or old are part of everyday life on the streets and in pubs.” Wearing’s chronicle of teenage inebriation has not enhanced the larger-lout reputation of the English. In the same way that I was astonished not to be shot on my first visit to New York, new arrivals to the UK will be surprised when greeted by sober officials and a relatively disciplined citizenry whose patience in queues is unknown in mainland Europe.

Martin occasionally lapses into forgivable national prejudice and her rather pedestrian opening chapter does only an adequate job of setting out the material and theoretical territory of video art. Many of the key themes are there: the modernist engagement with the specificity of the medium; the oppositional stance vis a vis broadcast television; the opportunity video offered for introspection and the hall of mirrors created by video feedback, ideal for the analysis of social interaction in public places. However, I was frustrated by the ordering of these thematics. At certain points the story jumps from the 1970s to the 1990s leaving out 10 years of crucial history. Occasionally, textual slippage misplaces artists historically – Smith and Stewart appear to have been active in the 1960s when they were still at primary school. The book also lacks in-depth analysis of the convergence of film and video in the 1990s and issues such as narcissism in subjective or autobiographical work are skated over. The absence of footnotes, bibliography and index will frustrate researchers but the greatest problem facing readers will be the poor quality of the English translation, which, in places, reads like a German instructional manual.

Martin has been ill served by her translator but if readers persevere, they will benefit from the extensive picture research and some valuable discussion on individual artists in the monograph section.

Catherine Elwes is author of Video Art, a guided tour published by I.B.Tauris (2005) and is Reader in Moving Image Art at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

For more information on the Sylvia Martin’s book go to the Taschen website: