Find three examples of artists whose practice and/or imagery are, or have been, influenced by new media (photography, film, television, radio, electronic or digital media etc.) since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Choose one or more worked by these artists to analyse in more depth. Try to find out why these artists work in their chosen medium rather than traditional painting, sculpture etc. (You may need to read the artists’ own accounts of their work to answer this question.)
Since starting the course I have considered, deliberated and worried about which artists I would choose for this first assignment. Film was the first artistic medium that I developed an interest that surpassed mere entertainment, and because of this holds particular fascination for me. I am increasingly inspired by artists that use the moving image in innovative and surprising ways, and the three artworks I have chosen to discuss have all surprise with either their form, content or presentation: Lorna Simpson explores a personal memory from childhood in a way that resonates for the audience but only makes sense when viewed as part of an exhibition and in the context of her earlier work; Kelly Richardson creates a powerful video installation that comments on the very future of the human race with a high definition video installation presented on a 50 foot panoramic screen that immerses the viewer; and Steve McQueen is the only artist to have won both the Turner prize and an Oscar and uses techniques that he employed in his video installations but extending these into a feature length narrative film.
Lorna Simpson – Momentum (2012)
I knew little about Lorna Simpson other than an article I had read in the ‘British Journal of Photography’ about nominees for the 2014 Deutsche Börse prize when I viewed her retrospective exhibition at the Baltic.
‘Momentum’ (2012) is presented in the centre of the gallery space – two large projection screens are suspended from the ceiling with the displayed images viewable from either side allowing the audience to experience the work in tandem with the still images displayed on the gallery wall. There is a lack of narrative structure and no clear beginning and end to the piece which allows us to dip into the images on screen at any point and still make sense of what is happening. The scenes shown on each screen are duplicated, although slightly out of sync, which makes us look from image to image while being a disorientating viewing experience. The positioning of the work, towards the end of the exhibition and therefore one of the more recent of Simpson’s artworks is important because by this point we have gained some insight into the recurring themes of Simpson’s work: identity, race, femininity, reality, memory – on an immediate level, ‘Momentum’ makes intuitive sense.
‘Momentum’ begins with a group of male and female dancers standing in what appears to be a dance studio wearing gold clothing, gold body paint and afro wigs. For an indeterminate length of time we watch the dancers do very little, they appear to be waiting and there is a sense of nervous energy, some of them stretch and adjust their costumes. A sudden cut and a number of dancers are in the centre of the room pirouetting on the spot with great energy and to the point of exhaustion. As some dancers tire, they are replaced by others who take their place and continue with the same activity. We wonder what the purpose of this is – is it practice or are they performing, looking for approval from someone – maybe us, the audience? We realise that the dance studio is missing one thing – the practice mirror. Perhaps the intention is that the camera and therefore, us as the audience, are the mirror? If this is the case then questions about looking and voyeurism are being raised, are we viewing this scene without the dancer’s knowledge? The sound of the dancers movement adds a kind of steady percussion which becomes quite mesmerising. When eventually the film loops round to the beginning, the dancers now look like they are resting rather than waiting, preparing themselves for the next round of practice.
The form of ‘Momentum’ – a moving rather than still image is only part of what differentiates the piece with the majority of Simpson’s other work, much of which is concerned with the relationship between image and text and the way this can interact to develop a narrative. There is no dialogue in ‘Momentum’, the meaning is uncertain – reading about the piece we learn that it is based upon the artist’s experience, a dance performance when she was around twelve years old. She did not enjoy the experience of performing: “getting on stage shocked me, the reality of what being on stage meant.” The disappointment felt at viewing her mother’s photographs of the performance is also key, and an important insight into one of her preoccupations as an artist “[the] kids looked like little specks of dark blue from an instamatic camera.” (Simon J. et al, 2013)The performance she remembered in her head was nothing like these pictures and she felt the need to recapture the moment, the creation of ‘Momentum’ can be read as her desire to recreate this event. Despite this, without the information gained from reading about Simpson’s inspiration, it is unlikely we would be able to ascertain that this is what the work is about. The difficulties of finding meaning in a piece are summed up by Simpson: “With ‘Momentum’ I wanted a clear photograph of something hidden. I like surprises, I like being unsure, trying things that might be stupid, doing something unknown to look for a trajectory other than the one the work is known for.” (Kaplan C.) It could be read that the piece is concerned with focussing our attention as an audience to the act of looking, the fallibility of memory and the nature of performance and reporformance.
Momentum available here https://www.nowness.com/story/lorna-simpson-momentum
Kelly Richardson – ‘Mariner 9’ (2012)
Kelly Richardson is a video installation artist who creates landscapes part real, part unreal, with digital effects added to make the art works impossible, improbable or unreal. ‘Mariner 9’ is a large scale, immersive video installation showing a panoramic view of the surface of Mars two centuries in the future. After taking in the hyper-real yet alien landscape with subtly changing lighting, wind and dust blowing across the surface, we notice that the planet is littered with discarded space probes, some of which are still partially functioning, although their abandoned state and time worn appearance suggest it is unlikely that any activity they display is of any value. This makes us wonder about Earth’s future: could the state of these probes indicate something sinister back home?
Scale is clearly an integral part of ‘Mariner 9’ and much of its success relies on the piece taking up our entire peripheral vision. A key influence in Richardson’s work is her visits to National parks and being overwhelmed “in the face of a massive, seemingly untouched expanse of land…For the installations to function properly, the viewer should feel consumed by them, which scale is integral to facilitating.” (Gordon, 2013) She usually uses real locations as the basis for her work before adding digital effects, ‘Mariner 9’ is the first work that is completely digital which is born out of necessity since no adequate pictures of Mars’ surface are available. Despite this, Richardson went to extreme lengths to ensure the piece is as realistic as possible, using topographic data of Mars’ surface collected by NASA – ironically this may have been transmitted by some of the probes that are depicted in the scene. Being as photo-realistic as possible was important to Richardson and critical for the audience to suspend disbelief and to believe in the what they are viewing. The influence of cinema, particularly science fiction, can be seen in ‘Mariner 9’; The subject matter references the recent trend for apocalyptic storylines which have been prevalent in film making over the last ten years and suggest the uncertainty we have about our current trajectory and the consequences this may have. Richardson says about ‘Mariner 9’: “It suggest a relationship between the potential we have to achieve amazing feats and our abilities to do great things – and the fact that as a species we are destructive at the same time – we can’t help but destroy everything we touch.” (Gordon, 2013) The piece shows a logical progression in her work as she moves away from more traditional and recognisable scenes using real settings towards work like this which is completely imagined a kind of modern sublime.
Mariner 9 video here: https://vimeo.com/46456709
Steve McQueen: Hunger (2009)
Steve McQueen made his name in the art world, winning the Turner prize in 1999 for his video installation ‘Deadpan’ which is inspired by the physical comedy Buster Keaton. ‘Hunger’ was McQueen’s first piece of narrative cinema and his background as an artist shows through his unconventional structure and visual style which often holds a shot much longer than we have become accustomed to in modern cinema, an effect which is unsettling and forces the viewer to consider much harder what they are viewing. McQueen is characteristically abrupt talking about the difference between art and cinema: “It’s not about artists. Artists are crap. It’s about people with ideas. There’s too much attention to artists.” (Film4.com)
The inspiration for ‘Hunger’ comes from an early childhood memory, much like Simpson with ‘Momentum’. When McQueen was 11 he recalls seeing reports of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands and his hunger strike on the news each night: “There was a number underneath his image, and I thought that that was his age, but I noticed that each night the number increased, and I realised that wasn’t his age, it was the number of days he had gone without food. To an 11-year-old, the idea of someone who in order to be heard was not eating left an impression on me. I don’t know why this image stayed with me, but it is a very strong memory.” (Grant, 2011) McQueen was driven to tell Bobby Sands story because in his opinion the hunger strikes represents an important historical event which has been swept under the carpet.
‘Hunger’ has three distinct sections – possibly a conscious nod to classical Hollywood narrative structure despite subverting this convention. The first act introduces us to conditions for both prisoners and guards, the tone is objective, dispassionate even; the grim realities of life for both are shown but McQueen is not concerned with balance: “I don’t think people are bad in general, but circumstances make them do what they have to.” (Calhoun) Both the first and third acts are almost entirely without dialogue, any speech is fractured and there is no score. The middle section however is an intense 22 minute scene (17 and a half minutes of which is a single shot)in which Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) discusses with a priest (Liam Cunningham) his intention to go on hunger strike. Sands is revealed to be articulate, compelling and complex. Not only is the scene central in the running time of the film, it is also integral to the audience’s understanding: “I was interested in the whole notion of intimacy, the intimacy of the conversation. What often happens in films is the audience is involved in that conversation – there’s a shot of you, then it reverses and then there’s a shot of me. But I didn’t want the audience involved in that. It’s not their business. These guys are not talking to them, they’re talking to each other…You have a situation where the audience thinks it shouldn’t be involved, so your attention is heightened and your focus is sharpened.” (Film4.com)
The final act, again mainly silent, shows the brutal reality of what it is to starve to death. And yet, it is filmed in an almost poetic way. McQueen describes the final scenes as having a sense of Sands spirit being a balloon that wants to leave the room. On the structure of the film he says: “I had this idea of the structure as like a river that turns into a rapid which turns into a waterfall. This analogy of narrative, of a route is what I wanted to bring the audience along to a situation that he can or she can identify with her surroundings. Then there is a fracture, a disturbance. The reality that ensues is distorted of course. The waterfall is the suspense of reality – death. In some ways the situation in this film’s narrative is that it goes against nature of course, because as human beings we do anything to survive. So, that someone would decide to die is very profound.” (Grant, 2011)
That Steve McQueen seems to have made the transition from artist to film maker while retaining the clarity of vision he display in his gallery based work, and that this has been accepted by critics and the public alike who may not be typical exhibition visitors is remarkable, and yet I wonder how ‘Hunger’ would have been received had it been a first film presented to an audience unfamiliar with the directors art world background? If we believe that this prior knowledge is important to our understanding then surely it must also apply to ‘Momentum’ and ‘Mariner 9’? While it is true that each of these works can be viewed in isolation, I would argue their strength and our understanding increases if we understand the continuing themes and concerns from the artists earlier work. Each also shares the strange, contradictory similarity that although they clearly embody each artists vision they are open enough to individual interpretation to allow the viewer a personal connection which strengthens their resonance.
Bickers, P. Let’s Get Physical: Steve McQueen interviewed by Patricia Bickers. Art Monthly 202, Dec-Jan 96-97 [online] Available at http://www.artmonthly.co.uk/magazine/site/article/steve-mcqueen-interviewed-by-patricia-bickers-dec-jan-96-97 [accessed February 2015]
Calhoun D. (2009) Steve McQueen Interview with Dave Calhoun. Time Out. Available at http://www.timeout.com/london/film/director-interview-steve-mcqueen [accessed February 2015]
Film4.com. Steve McQueen: Hunger Q&A. Available at http://www.film4.com/special-features/interviews/q-a-steve-mcqueen-on-hunger [accessed February 2015]
Gordon K. et al (2013) Kelly Richardson: The Last Frontier. Alberta: Southern Alberta Art Gallery
Grant S. (2009) Interview: Steve McQueen Q&A. Tate Etc. Issue 15: Spring 2009. [online] Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/interview-steve-mcqueen-qa [accessed February 2015]
Kaplan C. “It’s Interesting to be unsure” A Conversation with Lorna Simpson. ArtMag by Deutsche Bank [online] Available at http://db-artmag.com/en/72/feature/its-interesting-to-be-unsure-a-conversation-with-lorna-simpson/ [accessed February 2015]
Mariner 9: An Interview with Tyneside Cinema’s Northern Stars – Kelly Richardson [online] Available at https://vimeo.com/52542709 [accessed February 2015]
Pixel Palace Artist in Residence: Kelly Richardson (interview) Available at https://vimeo.com/33567678 [accessed February 2015]
Simon J. et al. (2013) Lorna Simpson. Munich: Delmonico Books – Prestel
Tunzelman A. (2014) Hunger: A Mood Piece with Impressive Historical Balance. The Guardian, 6th March 2014 [online] Available at http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2014/mar/06/hunger-reel-history-bobby-sands-hunger-strike [accessed February 2015]