The incessant drill of Bruce Nauman’s “Raw Material OK OK OK” (1990), part of the AGA’s Bruce Nauman and Bill Viola show, is beyond irresistible. Try as you may, but its feverish entanglement of the disyllabic “OK OK OK” is delivered with a looping mechanic formality that does not lose its human comedy. There are variations in tones and deliveries, and the contextual meaning of “OK” gets left behind the longer you engage, but Nauman does not lose the human presence within a myriad of technology.
A projection-based work with a definitive sculptural element, “Raw Material OK OK OK” is as much a performance as it is sound art. As the next contemporary American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennial, Nauman has created a vast body of “Raw Material” audio works that include equally incessant and brilliant pieces “Work Work” and “Thank you.” The bareness of the components in “OK OK OK”—the bodiless artist spinning, the recital of “OK” set to a loop—conjures a visceral barrage that externalizes an experience that preexists rather than alluding to the creation of a new experience. The physical spiraling of the artist echoes the perpetual loop of the work, and it is “the loop” that attempts to finish what Nauman doesn’t ever intend to complete, and that is setting a finite experience of time and meaning. (One could only have wished for a lengthier exhibition space to encapsulate the cavernous echo and to not trip over fellow patrons pressed against the entrance.)
As a work of video projection, Nauman exploits the essence of video, and by extended lineage, cinematic formalities. A time- and light-based art that literally throws our shadows and demons against the wall, cinema and in turn, video art, share an ingrained ability to phenomenologically tantalize a captive audience. Rapture through the synchronization of a constructed image and sound has been formally discussed as that cinematic experience often prescribed as cinephilia, and there is an undeniable kinship between the early American experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Paul Sharit in the 1950s that lends itself to the evolution of video art as relevant contemporary art in the ’70s.
In pale comparison, Bill Viola’s “The Reflecting Pool” is certainly more meditative. A sad replacement for the originally scheduled “He Weeps For You,” “The Reflecting Pool” is a very early example of Viola’s engagement with multiple perceptions. The cycle of life is suggested, and Viola’s lifelong interest in water begins, but the curiosity in the technology overshadows the human sentiments. Known widely for rendering the tender moment of emotion, Viola, very much like Nauman, does not lose the human essence through their use of technology. Although “The Reflecting Pool” does not quite have the same affect as Viola’s more celebrated body of work, it reveals a rare glimpse into the evolution of his emotive video art.
Complimenting the Canadian-centric “Projections” exhibit with two American artists that arguably attract far greater international recognition, it can only be garnered that new media art still needs to be spoon fed on the local front to gain greater prominence. FAVA is questionable in its identity as a new media centre, though all signs would point to its foundation as potentially so. The importance in establishing and recognizing the importance of new media art is more than to just keep up with the times, but to diversify our insular definition of art. Video work is intrinsically adaptable to cross borders and in turn, engage in a larger network that can at once be local in context and international in scope. Traditional forms of visual art will never die, but the influence of the moving-image has been informing artistic practices since its inception into the mainstream nearly a century ago, and it’s time we as audiences, artists and institutions stop resisting.
*First appeared in Vue Weekly, April 10 - 16, 2008