The Nasher Museum of Art hosts Memorials of Identity: New Media from the Rubell Family Collection, a selection of nine videos by seven international artists. Co-curated by Mark Coetzee and Luisa Lagos, the videos are thoughtfully matched to the complex explorations of identity and nationalism and do not shy away from difficult, even painful, subject matter.
This kind of cutting-edge art has always been at the center of Don and Mera Rubell's collecting practice, explained South African-born Coetzee, who has served as curator for the Rubell Family Collection, based in Miami, since 2000. The Rubells have been joined by their son Jason (who graduated from Duke in 1991) and daughter Jennifer in their avid acquisition of contemporary art, which ranks as one of the world's foremost collections.
Within the darkened gallery, individual video loops play in somewhat discrete areas, with the exception of three stop-action animations by William Kentridge, which are shown grouped together. This creates an immediate cacophony of sound and image that Coetzee says was intentional. He wanted images and sounds to bleed into one another so that the experience would be similar to seeing paintings next to one another in a gallery, or going to a dinner party and hearing multiple conversations at once, separating out the strands of conversation that interested one most. Given the somewhat disconcerting results, one may question the success of this strategy, or perhaps consider it an apologia for the conditions of the works' presentation.
The videos were chosen to present a certain kind of linear narrative, according to Coetzee, and to that end, Memorials is grounded in the work of fellow South African William Kentridge. His poignant animation "Felix in Exile" (1994) tells the story of a man exiled from the outside world whose communication with that world lies in a mystic re-creation/transmission of what he draws on myriad sheets of paper that pass to and from the cell-like walls of his room. The white man establishes a poignant union with a black woman, a dreamer like himself, who gazes at the sky through a telescope. Witness to the killing of black men, she is ultimately killed herself. The video is composed of charcoal drawings, a medium that provides the useful metaphor of drawing and redrawing, writing and rewriting a history whose past traces are always visible, never erased. The visual story is accompanied by a moving string trio that is, sadly, not always clearly audible in its current setting.
By speaking out against apartheid in veiled visual symbol-poetry, Coetzee notes, Kentridge not only successfully avoided the persecution that awaited others who spoke against the government, but created works that are all the more universal, as opposed to ephemerally political, like some of his contemporaries.
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba's film "Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex--For the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards" (2001) was conceived as a memorial to those who died trying to leave Vietnam. Its surreal visual appeal derives from the unlikely underwater ballet of young men trying to pedal cyclos (old-fashioned bicycle taxis currently outlawed in Vietnam in an attempt to force the country into modernization) in an underwater coral reef. The quiet soundtrack consists of watery bubbling and splashing sounds with the plaintive notes of a wood flute. I stood very near the speaker box to begin to distinguish this peaceful soundtrack from impinging neighboring ones.
Young men cycle at the floor of the ocean, occasionally coming up for air, three groups of men perhaps in some pointless race. They eventually abandon their cyclos and swim away, and the camera continues on to find empty tent-like structures of white netting, eerily shrouding the reefs like a Christo project. The shafts of light coming through the water cast a shadowy ambiance befitting the subject.
Sven Pahlsson's "Sprawlville" (2002) connects a techno-beat-driven soundtrack to his highly tech-driven animation form to take us from the mall parking lot, which slowly fills with candy-colored cars, to the numbing, uniform regularity of suburban developments. Both environments are strangely devoid of evidence of human life, delivering the attendant critique of modern design gone mad.
Archival footage of "exotic" peoples of the world forms the backbone of Fiona Tan's evocative "Facing Forward" (1999). Patching together footage sourced from the Amsterdam Filmmuseum Archives, she forces us to consider our complicity in defining "the other," by presenting documentation of tribes or ways of life that exist no more, or are in fast danger of disappearing. A shy little girl is pushed in front of the camera, Africans are shown moving in certain ways before the camera to present full frontal, back and profile views, as though being catalogued for an ethnographer, bringing into question the presumptuously proprietary nature of such picture-taking. When a European cameraman turns the camera our way, we are forced to turn in upon ourselves and our perceptions. A voice-over taken from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities intones, "The traveler recognizes little that is his--discovering much that is not his and that he will never have."
Only 1 minute, 43 seconds long, Sigalit Landau's mercifully short "Barbed Hula" (2001) is physically uncomfortable to watch. In it, the naked artist undulates a barbed-wire hula hoop around her abdomen, where we can see its repeated action has raised welts on her skin. Akin to the body art/performance art phenomenon, this act of self-mortification approaches the self-flagellation of certain religious penitents, while it also evokes the tortures of the martyred saints. The hoop itself suggests Christ's crown of thorns, while the backdrop of an Israeli beach, with the tide rolling in, notes the enduring nature of human suffering against the foil of nature's eternity and the constant strife at her country's boundaries.
In Anri Sala's 1998 video "Intervista," we find the young artist discovering an old film reel in a box. It turns out to be a soundtrack-less clip of his mother as a younger woman making a speech at an Albanian Communist congress. When he brings it home to show her, what ensues is a painful and ambiguous confrontation with a past she prefers not to remember. Sala goes on an investigative mission, tracking down those that may be able to help him retrieve the meaning of the words she may have spoken, in the meantime finding those who were "disgraced" by the government, imprisoned for betraying the state. His search leads him to a school for the deaf, where he has his mother's words lip-read. When he comes back to confront her with what she actually said, she denies it, then breaks down in an uncomfortable acknowledgment of a painful, hopeless period in her life, which she finds mirrored in the political struggles of present-day Albania.
The Anri Sala and Fiona Tan works are each presented in their own separate viewing rooms, thus mostly sparing them from the problematic audio bleed from neighboring videos that proves rather arduous for the rest of the offerings. But with most videos lasting about 13 minutes (the Sala, at 26 minutes, is the longest), a small investment of time is amply rewarded in viewing each of the nine videos.
The Nasher is to be applauded for its embrace of "new media" (for lack of a better term--in point of fact, video is already two or three decades old), which spills over into the visually sumptuous concurrent, but far more demanding, Eve Sussman video. The commitment to video will continue later in the fall when the museum hosts a selection of contemporary photography and video from China. New media is by no means unknown to the area--the Ackland Art Museum devoted a 2000 show to this subject, Illuminations: Contemporary Film and Video Art, and video offerings have sprinkled through various Triangle museums and galleries over the past decade. Though the N. C. Museum of Art now owns a piece by Bill Viola, the Nasher has established an ambitious, avant-garde curatorial agenda that nonetheless fills a niche left open by the consistently more conservative choices at the NCMA. The area's art lovers can expand their horizons through exposure to the concentration of this art form on view at the Nasher this fall.
Memorials of Identity will be on view at the Nasher through Oct. 1, 2006.
On Thursday, Sept. 14 at 5:30 p.m., Jason Rubell and his parents, Don and Mera, will discuss the evolution of their collection and Memorials of Identity at the museum auditorium, free with admission. The Nasher Museum of Art is located on the campus of Duke University at 2001 Campus Dr. in Durham. For more information, call 684-5135 or visit www.nasher.duke.edu.