There is something inherently subversive about video art, something its audience can find instinctively challenging, even innately disturbing. What to make of he work of, say, Nam June Paik or Bruce Nauman?
In some ways, video art is deceptively seductive, naturally evocative of film and TV, making use of many of the formal conventions viewers are generally familiar and confortable with: the friendly screen, actors/performers, a similar composition. It might also have a recognisable characters and hint at a coherent narrative.
This type of art becomes problematic for an audience weaned on soap operas and reality TV; it strays from the objective of pleasing the viewer as entertainment. Indeed this very expectation, this desire for televisual satisfaction is frequently toyed with, undermined or dissolved completely. Maybe it isn’t even there to start with. If the spectator approaches something such as Paul McCarthy’s Painter thinking they are in for an easy ride, the rug is pulled from beneath them, they have to engage themselves in the process of artistic production, i.e. to untangle exactly what it means. The unprepared viewer can respond in a number of different ways: confusion, tears, laughter, violence.
Whilst video art is related to the cinema or TV experience, it is never allowed to rub shoulders with it – you don’t get to see it at home. Steve McQueen, a video artist exhibited in galleries, who has crossed into the critical and cinematic mainstream with works such as Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) is a notable exception to the rule.
Aside from McQueen’s work, anyone looking for an approachable introduction to video art could do a great deal worse than investigating the work of young Danish artist Jesper Just, whose work is currently on display in his first retrospective or ‘monograph show’ at the Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne (MAC/VAL), just outside Paris. Just’s work has its starting point in the familiar, which slips just enough for his films to not be completely alienating.
The centrepiece of the show, ‘This Unknown Spectacle’ is a new work, commissioned by MAC/VAL itself, ‘This Nameless Spectacle’, the title inspired by a William Carlos William poem. The work is made up of two gargantuan panoramic video screens juxtaposed opposite each other in the centre’s vast temporary exhibition space. There is both a tension and a dialogue between the screens, the spectator is caught between them, consistently forced to choose between one or the other; unable to see both at the same time.
The on-screen action consists of a vague narrative about a woman and a young man, her in a wheelchair, him on foot in and around Paris’ Butte Chaumont park. As a whole it evokes separation, the impossibility of communication, artificiality. There are reasons for the latter – Buttes Chaumont is a completely man made park and we learn in a video interview with the artist that the work’s actress, Marie France, is herself a transsexual. The overall tone is ponderous, starkly melancholic and not a little sinister.
‘This Nameless Spectacle’ is certainly the bleakest work of the six on display at MAC/VAL. All of Just’s works here are, however, touched by a certain amount of melancholy, particularly, ‘A Voyage in Dwelling’, previously exhibited during Paris’ Nuit Blanche at the Centquatre art centre in 2009, where a solitary woman explores the corridors and stairwells of the Copenhagen to Poland ferry. ‘A Vicious Undertow’, a dance-based piece is similarly ponderous, its characters appear to reflect on lost love and the breakdown of relationships.
It is not all bleak, though. Just’s work is infused with a definite humour, if it is a little on the dark side. ‘The Lonely Villa’, for example features middle-aged men waiting at tables adorned with telephones and glasses of cognac in a ‘gentlemen’s club’. An exchange takes place, but through song rather than words.
Elsewhere, a similar juxtaposition of surprise is used to different ends. In ‘Sirens of Chrome’, for example Just deconstructs the stereotypical advertising connection between women and cars. Rather than a bikini-clad beauty sprawled over a bonnet, the vehicular bodywork here become a side of artistic expression through dance.
From the perspective of the collection as a whole, Just seems to be inviting us to consider the exact nature of the “unknown spectacle”. One of the most fashionable answers would be the Debordian, the “spectacular society” is that of contemporary life where real, lived experience is reduced to visual images. Maybe Just’s work, and that of decent video art in general forces us to look differently at this ‘unknown spectacle’ that surrounds us. In making this spectacle “known”, as Just’s work strives towards, video art can lead us towards a radical appreciation of contemporary life. Perhaps this is where its true subversive potential lies.