Late 20th Century Video Sculptures Visit MIT

Sarah Beth Campisi's picture

CAMBRIDGE - By the time the opening reception of Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995 began on Feb. 7, the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was full of art enthusiasts, chatting in the lobby and exploring the gallery. Before Projection is a celebration of early video sculptures and their artists. The conception of video sculptures in the early 1970s was the beginning of a new artistic medium and sparked a revolution of multimedia in art.

Henriette Huldisch, the director of exhibitions and curator of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, is the curator of the show.

“I really saw video sculptures as an underappreciated medium. Many of the pieces had been in storage for decades,” Huldisch said.

Huldisch began thinking about this show years ago, but the real conceptualization did not begin until recently.

“I didn’t really start working on it until a year and a half, two years ago, which is quite quick for an exhibition that is a group show with historical pieces. There’s a number that were museum loans, and some needed restoration,” Huldisch said.

One piece in need of restoration was Maria Vedder’s PAL oder Never the Same Color. Originally created in 1988 and shown in Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany in 1989, PAL oder Never the Same Color had to be restored in order to be displayed.

“It is complicated because it is a reconstruction,” Vedder said. “I’ve been following this from home. It was a very tense story because the company that used to program the monitors is out of business.”

Home for Vedder is northern Germany, where she traveled from to see her and her colleagues’ work at MIT. Vedder’s work in video sculpture began in the early 1980s, and has continued to present day.  PAL oder Never the Same Color contains 25 monitors arranged one on top of the other in a grid. One television set is removed from the grid and set to the side of the larger piece.

According to the show’s program, “The monitors construct a wall in a manner reminiscent of bricks or pixels composing an image.”

Upon arrival at the show, Vedder greeted friend and artist Mary Lucier. Lucier’s piece Equinox is located at the conclusion of the show, just after Vedder’s.

Equinox consists of seven monitors, set on pedestals next to one another. The monitors show film of seven sunrises from March 9 to 12 in 1979. The final date was the vernal equinox. Lucier filmed from the 31st floor of Independence Plaza in Lower Manhattan. Lucier began working with video sculpture in 1974, and has had her art shown in prestigious locations such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Lucier lives and works in New York.

“It was in the air in those days, it was brand new media. Nam loaned me my very first camera, and I instantly knew,” Lucier said.

Nam June Paik was a Korean artist included in the show with his piece Charlotte Moorman II from 1995. Paik died in 2006.

“[Video] was everything I was interested in,” Lucier said. “I was interested in literature, sculpture, space and time. And if you take a video monitor and create a sculpture, you can create all kinds of images and ideas and spaces you didn’t have before.”

Both Lucier and Vedder began their career with photography, but found video early on and focused their work on video as a medium.

“In those days, you took a picture and you had to develop it with chemicals. But the image was very small, so you had to enlarge it before you could even see what you had. Then you’ve lost a week through the process. With video, I could see at once what I did,” Vedder said. “For me, it was to be a painter. You have the empty screen, and you add color, sound and effects. I could see it in the moment. It’s more about the process and the control. I find inspiration in the process.”

While the pieces in this show were created from 1974 to 1995, both Vedder and Lucier use up to date equipment in their current work.

“Except when I have a chance to revise a piece, I buy new cameras, new monitors, new projection equipment,” Lucier said. “I keep making new work. I don’t give up on it. I continue to do pieces that take me on explorations and journeys. I love traveling with my camera and going to new places I’ve never seen before.”

“Today the digital cameras get smaller and smaller, but they have very professional quality which is important for all this art. It allows access,” Vedder said.

The use of flat screens and modern technologies have made video sculpture even more relevant today, Lucier said. The medium evolves as technology is updated, but the paradox of Before Projection is the interaction of two-dimensional images shown in a three-dimensional space.

“A lot of these works are so inventive and original,” Huldisch said. “They haven’t been seen in a long time, but I think these are really beautiful three-dimensional works of art. They are very much anchored in three-dimensional space, you can move around them and walk through them.”

“The video walls are now flat screens, they look more like wallpaper. These deep boxes with rounded screens means that the physical space is very important,” Vedder said.

The MIT List Visual Arts Center is located at 20 Ames Street in Cambridge. Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995 is on display from now until April 15. For more information on upcoming public programs on this exhibit, visit listart.mit.edu/events-programs.