Talking Pictures, the new exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, is a tough sell. Of all art media, video is probably the most difficult with which to engage viewers. This seems preposterous when one considers the amount of time we spend in front of screens, but maybe that's the problem.
Video art is composed in the language of entertainment, yet so little of it is entertaining. There is an undeniable difference between paying $10 to go watch Clive Owen and paying $10 to see a giant pair of ruby lips harass and belittle you.
Still, if you have two hours to spare and no need for the so-called fourth wall, Talking Pictures deftly explores the moving image and our relationship to it.
That said, the show is not without its problems. The first video, installed in SITE's cavernous entryway, is Kota Ezawa's childish animation of celebrities' speeches. This work features clips of John Lennon, Susan Sontag and Joseph Beuys, all of whom I admire and none of whom I could hear due to the sonic competition from the other installations. I tried standing behind the monitor in order to absorb the speaker's full output. Even so, Beuys' heavy accent was washed away by the aforementioned mouth in the next room.
Unfortunately, this bleed-over was a recurring problem throughout the exhibit. While trying to enjoy Javier Téllez' beautiful retelling of six blind peoples' encounter with an elephant, "Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See," it was pretty tough to ignore the succession of ringing phones from the adjacent space where Christian Marclay's video was playing. Likewise, Nic Nicosia's derisive, villainous laughter in "So…you wanna be an artist" was audible from so many points in the space I didn't bother to watch the video by the time I got to it.
Only Bruce Nauman's "World Peace (Projected)," a five-channel installation that consumes an entire gallery, is unaffected by the cacophony; this is because a theme of the work is interruption and distraction. Surrounding the viewer, the singular faces of some truly unattractive people repeat variations of the phrase, "[Someone] talks. [Someone else] listens." (For example: "I talk. You listen. He talks. She listens. You talk. They listen.") The audio channels from each screen overlap so it is almost impossible to hear what each individual is saying, even though Nauman has them all saying the same thing. The effect is the aural equivalent of unfocusing one's eyes—strangely textured and headache-inducing. Though I like Nauman's work, I seriously doubt anyone would stay for the full hour of the video's running time. (Take that as a dare.)
Thankfully, most of the works are engaging enough to overcome the annoyance. Marclay's "Telephones" is a classic. Compiling dozens of shots from Hollywood films, Marclay orchestrates a multi-party conversation that leaps between eras and styles. It is funny and light-hearted—a rarity in contemporary art—and fits nicely with Nauman's work about the nature of dialog.
The only work in the show that is of the non-video persuasion is Nadine Robinson's "Tri-Christus," a large trio of Xs that light up like a marquee. You might recognize the work from the previous SITE Biennial, for which it was installed on the roof. With it installed inside, the viewer is literally unable to look at the work, a wicked joke about being blinded either by God or from too much masturbating.
As a whole, Talking Pictures illustrates the complex ways we observe and communicate with the world via our senses, symbols and actions. It also does a pretty good job of trying to disrupt them. If you go, be prepared to spend a chunk of time. And you might think about bringing earplugs and sunglasses.
Through Jan. 10, 2010
SITE Santa Fe
1606 Paseo de Peralta