Time Is Its Essence

"Making Time: Considering Time as a
Material in Contemporary Video & Film,"

"Making time" is exactly the challenge you'll face if you decide to take in "Making Time: Considering Time as a Material in Contemporary Video & Film," the inaugural exhibition at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) in Lake Worth.

The show consists of nearly three dozen videos and films by 29 artists, and they range in length from 4 minutes and 9 seconds to 12 hours. If you were to watch all 32 pieces back to back, it would take you roughly 27 hours and 45 minutes, and that's not even counting the seven works with unspecified times that run on continuous video loops.

That 12-hour piece, by Mexican artist Francis Alÿs, is Zócalo (1999), a DVD projection that documents the shadow of a flagpole as it creeps across Mexico City's main square over the course of a day. The piece can be seen as a can-you-top-this? homage to Andy Warhol's 16mm Empire (1964), an 8-hour, 5-minute shot of Manhattan's Empire State Building. That infamous work -- an obvious ancestor of much of what's in this show -- is also seen at PBICA, where it greets you in the lobby just before you enter the exhibition.

Artist Peter Sarkisian explores boundaries with Hover (1999)
Artist Peter Sarkisian explores boundaries with Hover (1999)

Obviously no one is expected to watch either Zócalo or Empire in its entirety. But just the idea that someone would actually make such films is as tantalizing and enigmatic as a Zen koan. That's true of most of the works included here -- the concepts behind them exert a strange hold on our imaginations. They raise questions that aren't (and maybe can't be) answered.

Given the origins of the PBICA building, a snazzy Art Deco structure that was once home to the Lake Theatre movie house, it's appropriate that the first exhibition in the newly remodeled facility features works on film and video. Curator Amy Cappellazzo assembled the show as a wide-ranging survey of representative time-based works from the past three and a half decades, although more than half of the pieces are from the '90s, and more than half of those are from the past two years. Clearly this is cutting-edge stuff.

Logistically Cappellazzo had her work cut out for her. Working with the architectural team LOT/EK, she reconfigured the museum's spaces to accommodate an impressive amount of audiovisual equipment. The group also opted for a sort of high-tech industrial feel: The mottled concrete floor has been left unpainted except for a Day-Glo orange stripe that leads you through the entire exhibition, and the shiny metallic insulation and metal support beams have been left exposed. The overall effect is reminiscent of the atmosphere at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.

The main gallery downstairs is dominated by Canadian artist Stan Douglas' Evening (1994), a large video installation that juxtaposes three projections of American TV newscasts running simultaneously side by side. The audio from this piece can be heard throughout the museum, as can the sounds of the skateboard wheels playing on four video monitors around the corner in the piece Indy (1995), by the Venezuelan artist José Antonio Hernández-Diez.

The rest of the downstairs space is taken up by two groupings of works. A row of ten viewing booths has been set up to allow visitors to watch individual works in relative isolation. The walls of some of these little rooms are covered with spiky black foam, while others are painted white. All have places to sit while you watch.

At the far end of this row is an 11th enclosure that's slightly larger. It houses a striking piece by Peter Sarkisian called Hover (1999), an 11-minute, 30-second piece that consists of video footage of a naked woman and child projected onto the five visible sides of a cube that sits in the middle of the room. These figures start out in slow motion, then gradually speed up as they explore the small space in which they're confined, until they reach real-time speed and finally go into rapid acceleration. A gurgling, mechanical soundtrack that's vaguely unsettling accompanies their movements.

The second grouping downstairs is a series of six video monitors suspended from the ceiling a few feet from one another. Three of them are equipped with headphones that dangle from the ceiling, and rather than seating, the gallery has been fitted with a large slab of soft blue foam that projects from the wall at an angle, providing the viewer with a comfortable place to lean back while watching the videos.

It was at this point that I began to feel a bit like David Bowie in the sci-fi cult classic The Man Who Fell to Earth. Specifically I felt an eerie kinship with Bowie's extraterrestrial character in the scene in which he sits mesmerized in front of a bank of television sets, each tuned to a different channel. The audiovisual input was almost overwhelming, and yet I couldn't resist glancing from screen to screen in a futile attempt to take in everything at once.

That effect is multiplied upstairs, where there's a row of ten monitors, each with headphones. Beyond this gallery is one of the show's most ambitious, technically complicated pieces, a large video installation by Diana Thater called The Caucus Race (1998). It includes two video projectors casting images onto adjacent walls, along with four video monitors spaced at irregular intervals on the floor and a video synchronizer nearby to control everything.

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