The Figure in Contemporary Art: Bodies on Film.



Richard Serra, Hand Catching Lead, 1968. Around the time Serra created this video, he had compiled this verb list, which he went about illustrating through his art. The whole exercise was about material and the body meeting in one simplified action or process. Questions of identity, motive, or emotion are completely separated from this work. It’s simply a hand and a verb.

I recently organized a show of new media works, and realized that my series of short photo essays exploring the human figure in contemporary art was missing a new media presence. With this in mind, I focused my attention towards those dark rooms designated for video art in museums in Beacon, Indianapolis and New York City. Here’s what I found:

Francis Alÿs, Tornado. Part of Alÿs’s solo show at MoMA, A Story of Deception (which is up through August 1). I was taken by photographs of this video so I was excited to finally see the work in person. The video includes footage of Alÿs viewing the tornado from a safe distance, as well as intense shots by him as he runs right into the heart of the storm. Watching the artist’s tiny figure facing down these huge desert dust-devils might seem pointless and painful. But there’s something poetic about it, too — the lonely figure of a man chasing down something profoundly beautiful, powerful and dangerous.


This video (which I recently saw at MoMA) documents an infamous performance by Acconci in 1972, in which he masturbates under a gallery ramp while fantasizing aloud about the gallery goers above him. Although Acconci and his viewers are aware of each others’ presence through sound, the bodily presence in the room remains central to the piece. The question I kept asking myself was, Is he acting, or acting out a fantasy?

Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Ask Chuleta, Topic 1: Contemporary Art, 2006. Certainly, many folks are now familiar with the work of Hennesy Youngman, who is known for his hilarious video series, started in 2010, which deconstructs the art world using homeboy slang. I think it’s important to note that he has a precursor: I found this piece by Raimundi-Ortiz at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a YouTube-style video in which the character displays an acute knowledge of contemporary art in a similar high art-meets-the-’hood style. Raimundi-Ortiz confronts art world stereotypes head on, using her own appearance, slang, and a casual setting as proof that artspeak isn’t only for pretentious white men.
Bruce Nauman, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), 1968. I finally made a trip to Dia: Beacon, where I found only a few videos to pick from, all of which were by Bruce Nauman. This video is a tedious and seemingly labored procession of Nauman holding awkward positions for far too long. After watching Nauman standing on one foot for five minutes I could conjure up little aesthetic or conceptual interest, and I left to go look at the Richard Serra sculptures. (I’d love to have a list of people who actually watched this video for the entire hour. I’m sure it’s short.) An aside: while talking about another Nauman video, Hennesy Youngman compared him to a peacock on MDMA. I feel like Slow Angle is more of a robotripping Nauman.

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