Open your eyes and admit it: Video art — basically, moving images displayed on screens in art galleries — is the most riveting, the most reliably surprising artistic medium of our time.
Don’t be hoodwinked by the preponderance of really bad video art — all that sloppy footage, nonexistent editing, sadistically stretched-out durations, industrial drone soundtracks, and utter lack of plot, psychology, and pictorial innovation. Remember instead all the bad painting you have seen, and the complete lack of relevance this has in the moment when you finally come across a great Matisse, Rembrandt, or Velazquez.
The same holds for video art. The medium, having survived and thrived despite its dysfunctional parents (minimalist and conceptual art of the 1970s), has been around long enough now for its potential to be beyond doubt.
And of course, it’s more than mere potential: There are dozens of video artists around the world making art right now that will stand the test of time. And in the meantime (after all, who cares about the test of time?) it will play havoc with your dreams.
Two such artists, Nathalie Djurberg, from Sweden, and Hans Op de Beeck, from Belgium, have video works on display this spring in Boston — Djurberg at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Op de Beeck at MIT’s List Visual Art Center.
Conventional cinema is a collaborative medium. Video art, when it’s good, tends to be no different — although, unless you are Matthew Barney, the scope of the operation tends to be much smaller. Djurberg and Op de Beeck work on a fairly modest scale, but they have both teamed up with composers, who give their mesmerizing images added power.
Op de Beeck’s “Staging Silence (2)” is a fabulously elegant, 20-minute film in which the camera never moves but everything in front of it is constantly changing. On show through April 6, it has a moody, minimal soundtrack, replete with sounds from nature, composed specifically for the film by Robin Rimbaud, a UK-based musician who goes by the moniker Scanner.
However fantastical or far-fetched their subject matter, most movies at least take care to construct an alternative reality that’s internally coherent. In “Staging Silence (2),” Op de Beeck ignores this principle. In fact, with nonchalant aplomb, he repeatedly flouts it.
The film, in black-and-white, begins with a mandarin on a table, and two sets of hands which enter the picture from left and from right. Both are peeling their own mandarins.
And so immediately we have the film’s premise: on the one hand, something existing by itself, inviolate and unquestioned; on the other, something being interfered with, changed to conform to our own purposes and appetites, peeled.
Henceforth, those anonymous hands appear again and again all through the film, constantly altering the table with straightforward but stunningly effective sleights of hand, adding and taking away model trees, upturned plastic bottles, stretched-out plastic wrap, a bonsai tree, and cotton-ball clouds to make the table before us appear now like a winter landscape, now like a corporate office, now like a swamp, and now like a fairground.
Even as we see how these illusions are achieved, they seem — with the help of constant adjustments in lighting and sound — remarkably credible. There is a magical quality to the resulting footage that — for kids and adults alike — is enchanting.
The complex pleasure of submitting to belief, even as we know we are looking at an artificial construction, is at the very heart of art — both the impulse to make it and the urge to look at it. In many great works by Rembrandt, Matisse, and Velazquez, for instance, you can feel the dress-up box and the table of props just out of the frame.
It’s the same in “Staging Silence (2)” — except that, in effect, Op de Beeck keeps the props and the frame itself in view. And still we believe.
But Op de Beeck, whose work shares much both in theme and method with the great German artist Thomas Demand, is interested in more than just the age-old dynamic of the “suspension of disbelief.” He is interested in something sharper, more contemporary, more critical. His work takes aim, I think, at the essential flimsiness of our lives today.
It is about the ways in which the distances between things are constantly collapsing. Not just literal distances, which have been rendered anodyne by the speed of modern travel, but more crucially, the mental distances between the real and the virtual.
As one looks at “Staging Silence (2),” its constantly shifting levels of reality come to feel almost like wild fluctuations in temperature, from the heat and humidity of belief to the brisk chill of skepticism, and back again, in a dizzying loop. Over the film’s 20 minutes, the wild ride never ceases to fascinate, but it becomes spiritually wearying.
The result — for me anyway — was a rising sense of dismay. The word “travesty” feels close, but that would imply someone else’s wrongdoing. With our will to believe, we have surely brought this strange acedia, this addiction to the virtual, on ourselves.
At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Djurberg’s short films — four of them projected simultaneously onto the four walls of a room, with an installation of almost 200 wonky clear polyurethane vessels on four tables in the middle of the room — are very different.
On show until July 6, they’re also less suitable for children. Djurberg is one of the most audacious artists around. She makes Claymation videos that feel like Brothers Grimm fairy tales gone haywire, and gauche sculptures from various materials. Her new animations, which are accompanied by a pulsing, chime-filled soundtrack by fellow Swede Hans Berg, are brilliantly perverse.
Like many tellers of folk tales, Djurberg is enthralled by animals, and the strange potential for magic in their interactions with humans. But her view of the state of human-animal relations is a good deal less sunny than even the outlook of the Brothers Grimm.
In “Didn’t you know I’m made of butter?,” for instance, a naked, big-breasted white woman cavorts with a bull, conjuring the myth of the rape of Europa by Zeus who, smitten, transformed himself into a bull. As the bull’s horns pierce parts of the woman’s thighs, her clay body parts begin to melt and come asunder. Scrawled sentences with an erotic undercurrent appear on the screen: “I will melt in the sun and under your touch.” “Your toungue [sic] is raspberries and flowers.” And . . . well, you get the drift.
The other films are more disturbing: in one, a naked black woman sitting in a glass interior appears to give birth to a bright red owl, and then has her leg caught in an animal trap. A reindeer supports her with its antlers while a fox frees her by chewing off her leg. When her other leg is similarly trapped, he repeats the favor. A wild boar eats both amputated feet.
In a third film, a different kind of revenge drama is enacted by animals against a man who dons a fox mask. Again, words (presumably the animals’) appear on the screen: “I will eat your leftovers. I will eat you. . . . You believe me to have no feelings, no compassion. I will prove you right.”
Disturbing? Yes. All of it. But because it’s all done with fairly rudimentary Claymation, it’s also funny. Djurberg’s aesthetic combines the scathing satire and decorum-busting melodrama of Louise Bourgeois and Paul McCarthy with the dream logic of Jan Svankmayer and the gleefully perverse sensuality of Pipilotti Rist. There’s something deliriously anarchic and liberating about the results, although at times you long for more concision and clarity.
I suppose that’s the challenge video art offers: immense possibility, and a liberation from expectations of any kind. So much freedom is daunting. It takes the best artists to put it to use.
Hans Op de Beeck: Staging Silence (2)
At: MIT List Visual Arts Center. Through April 6. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.