The Neo-Kinetic Closet

Copyright Flash Light 1995

1994-95 was a great season for the art form that dare not speak its name. I refer, of course, to neo-kinetic art, to use the epithet Kim Levin coined.

The apotheosis of the season was Nauman's retrospective at MoMA. Nauman doesn't doesn't speak about his kinetic roots, nor does Jenny Holzer, nor the majority of successful artists who work in the animated manner. To be proud of being kinetic is to risk disapprobation. Levin's neologism was born in her uncomprehending review of the P.U.L.S.E. show.

My intent here is not to examine the reasons for the prejudice, nor to "out" successful artists, but rather to celebrate our clandestine success among the readership of those who have come out of the kinetic closet by subscribing to MOVEMENTS.

Among the relevant shows: Ted Victoria at Jayne Baum, Roxy Paine at Ronald Feldman, "Forces" at Humphrey, Tim Watkins at Liberty Science, Dennis Oppenheim at Blum Helman, Mario van Horrick at Art in General, Allan Berliner at the Walter Reade Theater, Shu-Min Lin at Gallery 456, Bill and Mary Buchen at Citicorp Center, Gregory Barsamian at Creative Discovery Museum, Nam June Paik at Holly Solomon, Gary Hill at Soho Guggenheim, Ray Rapp at T'Z Art & Co., Mary Lucier at Lennon Weinberg, Inc., Mary Ziegler at CarpenterCenter, Carolee Schneemann at Pompidou Centre, Immateriaux at Kenkeleba Gallery, Stephen James at P.S. 122, Nancy Meli Walker and Penelope Price in the Second International NY Video Festival Installations at Mary Anthony Gallery, Ken Butler at Threadwaxing, Leni Schwendinger and Ben Rubin in the Whitney at Philip Morris, and Clyde Lynds public art commission at 290 Broadway. A partial list, my apologies to the majority of neo-kinetic artists omitted. Our movement has grown beyond the scope of a review.

Ted Victoria's work at Jayne Baum departs the path of classic still life to delve into metaŠkinetics. In the main gallery two darkened rooms have been built and furnished with projected images. A projection of a living goldfish swims in a projected bowl: virtual realism via the technology of the overhead projector. On a projected table a projected gun revolves. All the issues surrounding guns in our society thus circle there.

In the rear gallery are the most exquisite examples of kinetic realism I've encountered. They hang on the walls like animated photographs. The light, now concentrated in small studies, is bright enough to outshine the room illumination. Victoria has vanquished darkness.

In "Look it's happening again," we see what appears to be an ordinary room with a slowly revolving ceiling fan. Then a cross miraculously appears revolving in place with the fan. The artist hasn't merely depicted a miracle, he has created a miraculous appearance: a virtual miracle.

This raises the essential meta-kinetic question: What is the meaning of the miraculous now? When science makes it possible for machines to act like people (e.g. automated bank tellers, voice mail receptionists) and people to assume the powers of gods ( e.g. Shu-Min Lin used holograms to sculpt time-space in his show at Gallery 456. Multi-exposure holograms reveal their exposures as we shift our position. Shu-Min has advanced the art by shifting the images in time, space and composition to produce changing tableaux. A head moves through a time-space of changing emotions and backgrounds. Lin is altering context between holographic exposures like a director of cinema. The resulting 'distortion of reality' is to holography as cubism is to two dimensional paintings. It frees narrative from the limitations imposed by conventions of representation. It portends a revolution: the future is not holographic cinema, but cinematic holograms.

Kudos for most daring show in a commercial gallery goes to Humphrey for "Forces," which featured several ASCI artists. It was daring for showing only neo-kinetic work, for showing such a variety of work, and for committing two months to the exhibition. At the center of the show was a Dennis Oppenheim maquette which invited the viewer to imagine that the toy train circling the brim of a wire frame hat would become a real train in the full scale realization.

Included were Ossi's signature "bubble machines," a breathing sculpture of considerable frission by Armstrong, an ear which deluged us in a media shower of information by s'Soreff (I finally experienced medium as massage), a strong neo-laser sculpture by Frances Whitney, and holographic abstractions in time-space by Rudie Berkhout. Rudie also did a video variation on Tony Martin's classic "Door" sculpture which explored the aesthetic possibilities of a half-silvered mirror. Most meta-kinetic was Terezakis' work. He spelled the title PHI UPSILON CHI ETA which he translates from the greek as "Spirit." When I inquired at the gallery it was translated as "Zen." Scant trace of his trademark LED matrices, the installation featured an electrical arc frightening in its length and intensity. It jumped not between polished electrodes, such as we've seen in science fiction films, but between unpredictable electrodes that seemed grown like crystals. All that warned the viewer to stay back were spears set in the ground below it pointing outward to menace. Behind it two small monitors echoed the image in video surveillance. I was reminded that Zen was the religion of a warrior class.

Coming after his laser cannon in "Schicksal" (see Movements 1993 Vol 2 No 3) it seems Terezakis is determined to remind us of the dangers bound with the power and mystery at the confluence of science and spirit.

Gregory Barsamian's stroboscopic sculptures are always amazing in their apparent animation and metamorphoses. His most recent work, seen much too briefly in a studio showing before it left for its permanent installation in a Tennessee museum, is his most dramatic. We see a series of framed photographs arranged in a circle above our heads. The image in the photos seems to show a family picnic,

First time viewers can't comprehend how the miracle is worked. The entire sculpture has been revolving rapidly around us, but a strobe lights freeze the elements of the sculpture so they seem to besuspended in place. The movement, between strobe blinks, of the photographs is analogous to a motion picture projector moving the next frame of film into the projector gate while the projectionlight is off. The images in the photos are animated exactly like motion pictures- until the bird "breaks" through. The last frames in the series each have a bird sculpture emerging from them, and the sculptures appear animated just as the two dimension images are. This moment is breath taking because it is a perfect metaphor. A painter is bound to canvas, a photographer is bound to emulsion, just as we are bound to the earth. The dream of flight is as remote as the dream of breaking through the surface of the medium that restrains art. To see that dream of flight and freedom fulfilled in one soaring swoop evokes the feeling that meta-kinetic art is unbounded, creating in Barsamian's sculptural metaphor, a light of its own.

At Holly Solomon Gallery Nam June Paik has created the Great American Sculpture, "Electronic Superhighway." Filling the main gallery from floor to ceiling is a huge map of the USA. The stateboarders are outlined in neon, and each state is composed of video monitors. The screens that form Iowa play out politics. In Oklahoma, the musical "Oklahoma!" unreels, in Kansas, "The Wizardof Oz." It's Nam June's most spectacularly successful work. He's found a metaphor to match the potential of his video vision: depicting the TV as shaper of our world view. An information superhighway is already here, and it runs through our television screens, and leads to a wasteland.

I'd seen much of the work in Nauman's MoMA show when it first appeared at Castelli Gallery. On first encounter I'd liked his neon and video pieces. On one hand their neo-kinetic nature qualified them as truly modern art, but on another level their assaultive nature was like a slap in the face of the gallery milieu. Viewed together a MoMA the net effect was like a beating, albeit with a message. I admire Nauman for being able to use technology express himself, but I revere Nam June for the spiritual range of his work.

Another promising show was "Gary Hill," at the SOHO Guggenheim. Hill experimented with motion not just on the monitor: in some rooms video projectors revolved, moving images across the walls. Most erotic was "Suspension of Disbelief." In this and in "Between Cinema and a Hard Place," the images jumped from one monitor to another. This was accomplished by programmed switching circuitry. The "Hard Place" seemed to be the neo-kinetic frontier. Most effective was "Circular Breathing," a series of five synchronized projectors evoking a train ride through sound and movement.

Ray Rapp's video installations at T Z' Art & Co. address the serious aesthetic issue of sustaining attention with pure motion. In one piece titled, "Dancing on PlexiŠglass," the TVs were suspended overhead, screens facing downward. The image on screen was bare feet dancing a waltz on a plexi floor, viewed from below. Thus we looked up at the bottoms of bare feet seeming to press against the TV screen suspended above us. Just as music can sustain attention within the repetitive rhythm of its meter, the rhythmically moving feet sustained visual attention in a way that vied with abstract painting. Even more painterly, "Truth in Painting," had its exposed TV circuit boards painted monochromatically. The image on screen was a sheet of glass beingpainted from the other side, so all we saw was the brush pressing rhythmically into the color field. Opera was playing, and it was the rhythm of the brush rather than the image that sustained attention. The metaphor was perfect: What does it mean to "paint" with pure "motion?" As the visual arts continue to experiment with kineticism, music, being at the frontier of time based art, continues to provide clues for how to proceed.

Immateriaux at Kenkeleba Gallery had the most neo-kinetic "wall card" of the season. It was animated. It was interactive. It ran on a Mac and allowed the viewer to point and click for information on performances and installations, including text, sound clips, quicktime movies, and my favorite- a block diagram of the group's electronic performance gear.

The installation itself was an abstract laser projection that reacted when the viewer tried to touch the laser beam. The sensation of the light beam being interactive met my criteria for the miraculous. I imagined some elaborate video feedback was necessary, but the way the miracle was worked proved ingenious: a photo cell detected light when the laser bounced from your hand. The laser image had been scanned, so the moment in time when the light was detected told the computer where in the image your hand had been. Thus the computer could animate the abstract shape to retreat from your touch, and produce a musical tone in reaction. This made it possible to perform the abstract light projection like a musical instrument, a truly ethereal sensation.

"Coolest" neo-kinetic show of the season was incontrovertibly Stephen James at P.S. 122. He sculpted plants from copper tubing, then ran coolant through the tubing via a refrigeration compressor. Moisture in the air soon condensed on the sculpture forming a layer of frost. It was a striking image, but I had trouble deciphering the metaphor. "Plants are cool," offered Stephen.

Most "serious" neo-kinetic show of the season was Roxy Paine at Ronald Feldman. A large canvas had a grid of embedded plastic sockets. Stuck in several sockets were forms that looked like heavily impastoed brushstrokes. Lying on the floor was a pile of additional "brushstrokes" mounted on pegs so they could be plugged into the canvas. On one hand it seemed an interactive painting that invited collectors to participate in creating their own "composition." On the other hand it seemed a critique of the interchangeable art that fills so many galleries: variations on a theme, the only differences being where the brush strokes are stuck.

In Roxy's show every piece took risks. A pneumatic sculpture periodically lifted a card from a stack and hurled it across the room onto a messy pile. Each card held a word or two, and they would recount a dialogue if one had the patience to wait five minutes for each word. The gallery explained that it was astatement about how slowly Roxy reveals his ideas.

The center piece was "Dinner of the Dictators." Favorite meals of 12 despots from Hitler to Chiank Kai Shek preserved under glass. Each generation must come to terms with the past; Roxy does so by portraying these dictators as supreme consumers who leave nothing behind but desiccated traces of their gluttony.

"Where I'm At," supposedly had a pocket computer broadcasting coordinates to the art work which would move a laser pointer across a map of NYC to indicate the position of the artist. At the opening his Mac kept saying, "No mail," meaning it hadn't received coordinates. In truth the technology never worked. Where he's at is the attempt to use technology in pursuit of art to see where it leads, what risks it entails, what advantages it offers, and what truth it reveals. Even more than Nauman, Roxy uses technology to express himself, and better than Nauman, Roxy tempers cynicism with curiosity.

Conclusions: Abstract expressionism revolutionized art by suggesting that pure form and color could be expressive. Kineticism is revolutionary in suggesting that pure motion can be evocative. Neo-kinetic artists may vehemently deny being kineticists, insisting their intent is on meaning, their use of kineticism incidental. But it is the kineticism that links these works assurely as abstract expressionism linked an earlier generation.

We no longer believe, as Greenberg argued, that art history is linear, that the latest movement superceeds all others. Rather each movement has something to tell us about what is possible in art. Willem De Kooning and Grace Hartigan had already begun to return figurative elements to their paintings, thus showing art history as a dialectic process. It isn't necessary for kinetic work to be purely about motion, nor is it even necessary for contemporary neo-kinetic artists to admit their kinetic roots. It is enough to see kineticism playing an expanding role generation after generation to allow us pride in our kinetic heritage.