1.19 / Review

From Santa Fe: The Dissolve

By Randall Miller July 12, 2010

Released late last year, James Cameron's visual extravaganza Avatar has not only achieved critical and commercial success; the film has also reached new heights of animated realism through advancements in motion-picture technology. In contrast, SITE Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial, “The Dissolve,” celebrates videos that utilize the lo-fi, handmade aesthetics of early 20th-century animation. According to the gallery guide, curators Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco survey a “new creative development” in contemporary art—work that mines the narrative possibilities of moving picture techniques like stop-motion animation, shadow puppetry, and the carnival lightning sketch in order to explore traditional forms of visceral materiality and the image of the body in motion. The curators contextualize this type of work as a new path of resistance that allows artists to assert creative authenticity in a culture saturated by pop culture internet images and the type of simulations represented by Cameron’s film.

The galleries at SITE brim with projected videos by contemporary artists and motion picture pioneers such as the Edison Manufacturing Company and Lotte Reiniger. The juxtaposition of Reiniger’s 1926 animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Kara Walker’s videos National Archives Microfilm Publications M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: 1) Six Miles from Springfield on the Franklin Road (2009) and 2) Lucy of Pulaski (2009) illustrate the show’s investigations into aesthetic ancestry; Walker’s trademark silhouetted paper figures—brought to life as rudimentary puppets whose agonized movements are manipulated by intentionally visible hands—echo Reiniger’s shadow puppet characters. As the similarities between these two artists extend beyond Walker’s video work, it is easy to imagine that the inclusion of one of her installations, such as Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), in which a viewer’s movements around static images animate narratives of racial violence, might have expanded the concept of “moving picture.” Like most of the pieces in the Biennial, however, Walker’s selected video hems toward a more conventional, film-based definition.

While videos by Raymond Pettibon, Federico Solmi, Ezra Johnson, and Joshua Mosley combine sophisticated digital editing techniques with traditional art practices such as painting, drawing, and clay sculpture, some of the most beautiful and poetic works use the least amount of noticeable technical mediation. In Oscar Muñoz’s charming rumination on subjectivity and the ephemeral, Re/trato (2003), a hand guides a paintbrush around a cement surface, drawing and redrawing a face as lines and features evaporate before forming a complete picture. Similarly, Thomas Demand’s Rain (2008) is a video that painstakingly imitates raindrops hitting the ground using a stop-motion effect in which pieces of paper folded to look like splashes of water are frenetically arranged and rearranged

Kara Walker. National Archives Microfilm Publications M999 Roll 34: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands: Lucy of Pulaski, 2009; video, 25 min 30 sec. Courtesy of SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Oscar Muñoz. Re/trato, 2003; video, 28 min. Courtesy of SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

around a cement floor, creating a mesmerizing simulation that dissolves into abstraction. Dazzling as it may be, Demand’s animation has a complicated relationship to the rest of the work in the show in that it is the only video devoid of both figuration and narrative. Though it doesn’t quite fit within the curators’ parameters for “The Dissolve,” the inclusion of Rain could have established an opportunity for the inclusion of other non-figurative, non-narrative work that fill the criteria of employing handmade aesthetics with innovations in moving pictures.

Immediately, Stan Brakhage’s work comes to mind as one such possibility, and indeed Brakhage’s film Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) was featured as part of “The Abstract Dissolve,” a one-day addendum to the main show. Curiously, figurative works by Carolee Schneemann and Ken Jacobs were also screened here despite the nonrepresentational focus suggested by the supplemental show’s title. Adding to this confusion is the fact that Robert Breer’s avant-garde filmic montage Bang! (1986), a piece converted to video and containing no discernable narrative structure, is not included in “The Abstract Dissolve,” but in the main show.

The most curious inclusion is Bill T. Jones and OpenEnded Group’s 3-D digital video projection, After Ghostcatching (2010). This piece, in which expressionistic lines reminiscent of gestural drawing constitute the bodies of stereoscopic dancing figures, foregrounds the aesthetics of technology in a way that seems antithetical to an exhibition of which the central framework is the handmade. With its 3-D interface (glasses and all), Jones’ video points our attention back to the types of pop culture texts this show purportedly contests. More than any other piece in the Biennial, After Ghostcatching has the potential to instigate wider conversations about contemporary aesthetics, the implications of the body as a mediated image, and the role of the artist as a creative author.

Despite Lewis and Belasco’s attempts to chart a new creative resistance to popular uses of visual technology, the main exhibition overwhelmingly replicates viewing experiences most familiar to audiences through popular culture. Digital projections and television monitors dominate a show nearly suffocated by the restrictions and uncertainties of the terms upon which it is based. What the Biennial fails to fully contextualize is that the historical animations included in this show had once been on the forefront of technical accomplishment in popular culture. While contemporary artists may revisit these techniques to recapture a nostalgic ideal of handmade authenticity, films like The Enchanted Drawing (1900) were as innovative as Star Wars (1977), and Thomas Edison was comparable to George Lucas and Cameron in the 19th-century imagination. While the Biennial contains compelling individual pieces, its rigid contextualization of words like “moving picture” and “animation” prohibits explorations into genres outside of video that may have enriched the show as a scholarly text. Because of this, the exhibition does more to illustrate a preconceived framework than to chart a new creative impulse.


The Eighth International Biennial, "The Dissolve," is on view at SITE Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, through January 2, 2011.

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