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Time Is Its Essence

Artist Peter Sarkisian explores boundaries with Hover (1999)

"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.

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.

The title of the piece is a variation on a chapter title in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland involving an absurd race among some animals, and excerpts from the text in that chapter are projected one word at a time onto one wall. Then, one by one, the monitors and the other wall light up briefly with a moving image of an animal, and the process starts all over again.

The remaining works, both upstairs and downstairs, are astonishing in their diversity. Some emphasize real time. In Vito Acconci's Centers (1971), the artist points his finger at the camera for 22 minutes and 28 seconds. Darren Almond's Time and Time Again (1998) is a continuous-loop shot of a drafting table in a corner of the artist's studio. And for Ceal Floyer's Ink on Paper (video) (1999), we see a blank sheet of paper and a pair of hands, one holding a felt-tip marker that slowly drains its ink onto the paper for nearly two hours.

Other pieces are about process. Lucy Gunning's witty Climbing Around My Room (1993) shows a woman performing the title activity for eight minutes without ever touching the floor of the room. Even more fascinating is the 30-minute color film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) (1987), which is amazing less for its cinematic technique than for its quirky subject matter. In a large warehouse, a pair of Swiss artists who collaborate under the name of Fischli/Weiss stage (and film) a long, intricate series of chain reactions involving such mundane items as ladders, rope, tires, mattresses, chemicals, and countless other items that, once set in motion, create a seemingly never-ending domino effect.

The show also includes a piece by Korean-born Nam June Paik, who pioneered video art after Sony introduced its Portapak portable video camera in 1965. Here he's represented by Global Groove, a 1973 color video that's a hodgepodge of Japanese TV commercials; go-go dancers; footage of such luminaries as Richard Nixon, Allen Ginsberg, and John Cage; and other miscellaneous elements. While it might have seemed a revolutionary work at the time, years of MTV-saturated pop culture have rendered it almost quaint.

If you're interested in the aesthetic and theoretical underpinnings of the works that make up "Making Time" -- in other words, what it's all about -- curator Cappellazzo has that covered in a comprehensive paperback catalog to the show. It contains a detailed exhibition checklist, short biographies of the artists, and background information about each piece, along with a still. Also included is a trio of essays: one by Cappellazzo herself, another by UCLA film professor Peter Wollen (who cowrote the screenplay for the landmark Antonioni movie The Passenger), and a beautifully written if somewhat baffling one by the Brazilian writer, artist, and curator Adriano Pedrosa.

"Making Time" is easily one of the most adventurous exhibitions to hit South Florida in a long time, and the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art no doubt risks alienating potential patrons with more conservative tastes. But that's as it should be for a museum dedicated to contemporary art, which at its best is all about risk-taking. Cappellazzo and her collaborators have done an excellent job of organizing and presenting such challenging material, and if they continue in a similar vein, they'll eventually be poised to rival North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art for creative programming.


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