ART REVIEW / Is there someone out there?: Video art can be repetitive, monotonous, pretentious too. And, as Tom Lubbock discovered, startling and disorienting

Video-art uses a familiar, friendly and above all normal medium, and that can be to its advantage. Certainly, whenever there's a television in an art gallery, people tend to gravitate towards it. But this popularity cuts the other way, too. It makes art-videos look inherently pretentious. Compared to most things you're likely to see in this medium, they come over as excessively demanding of attention, almost a deliberate frustration of usual video pleasures. And it's true - the hypnotically repetitive image, with the unbelievably monotonous voice-over - there are some bad times to be had with video-art. Still, a caveat is in order. One shouldn't be so bound to a sense of what's video-normal that all but its most familiar uses seem simply perverse.

But the proof of the pudding, of course . . . and at the moment, if you're interested, you're in luck. Its novelty notwithstanding, the form has already acquired its masters, or at least its star- practitioners, and by any reckoning Gary Hill and Bill Viola are two of them. Both these US video-artists happen now to have UK shows. Hill's at Moma in Oxford (moving on to the Liverpool Tate in February); Viola's at the Whitechapel Gallery (with another piece at Anthony d'Offay). And both have taken the art-video a long way beyond the stereotype. In some ways they seem to be up to the same things, but their similarities reveal distinctions.

One thing they both do, for instance, is to treat the television screen rather in the same way as modern painting treated the picture surface: not as a window to look through, but as a physical object - the tube, the box, used sculpturally. One might think of Dame Edna's telling remark, 'Oh I adore the television. It's such an attractive piece of furniture' - or of the little girl in Poltergeist, trapped inside the screen. Viola has a meditative piece, The Sleepers, consisting of five oil drums filled with water, with a monitor face-up at the bottom of each showing images of heads asleep - and you feel these heads to be within the monitors, deeply submerged. It's an effective though simple metaphor for the sleeping mind.

Hill, in a kind of equivalent piece, does something rather more complex. Inasmuch as It is Always Already Taking Place (his titles are sometimes like that, unfortunately) is a still-life arrangement of 16 naked television tubes, ranging in width from 23 inches to the size of a 5p coin, each transmitting the close-up image of a part of a body - chest, ear, elbow, foot, though it's not always clear what - lying still but clearly alive, breathing or twitching slightly. A metamorphosis occurs. The tubes become quasi-organs: screen equates with skin, flexes with veins or nerves, light-glow with life; the whole arrangement appears as not just a bank of monitors, but an alternative body system, broken up, dispersed, re-ordered, in which vision and sensation are somehow fused.

There's little doubt that video-art, even of this very 'fine' sort, has its endemic cliches. It tends to be drawn (to invoke Dame Edna again) towards the spooky - the edge of consciousness, the disembodied body, shrine-like chambers with dim, religious lights. And there's little doubt, too, despite the caveats above, that Viola is actually a pretentious artist. The piece at d'Offay, for instance, is an all too precious assemblage of resonant devices: a television showing a beating heart, a basin of water in front of it, an interesting stone, a spot-lit flask whose image is projected, via a camera obscura, on to a screen. Viola plunges into the big abstract nouns. The main piece at the Whitechapel is a huge triptych of screens, the left one showing a woman (his wife) giving birth, the right one showing a woman (his mother) literally dying before one's eyes. The spectacle wouldn't necessarily seem voyeuristic if the subject hadn't been drawn from a beginner's book of themes. But Viola seems stuck on the medium's amazing 'potential', and content then to exploit this in quite simple-minded ways.

Hill is much more inventive, especially in the relationships he creates between image and spectator. Learning Curve definitely deserves a mention here. A school desk is given a big fan-extension, finishing in a curving screen on which a wave endlessly breaks. It locks the sitter / viewer into the view. But - since the effects are not going to be easy to convey briefly, and are impossible to illustrate - I want to rush on to Hill's most astonishing work, Tall Ships. Envisage this. The view from the threshold is a corridor, 30 yards long, and almost pitch dark - except for small patches of dim light, at eye-level, at regular intervals along the wall. So you make your way along the corridor up to, say, the first of these patches. You see then that it's the miniature, motionless and blurry image of a person. There's no screen or frame around it - it's a projection from overhead - just this lit image on an otherwise dark wall. You stand looking at it. At this point an amazingly spectacular effect occurs. As if summoned by your presence (actually, because of a pressure switch under the carpet) the image comes to life: it turns round, looks up at you, and begins to walk towards you, growing dramatically in size as it comes nearer, seeming almost to walk out of the wall, and ends up standing before you, practically face to face.

There are 15 of these presences, people of both sexes and various ages and races, and with various ways of confronting you. Their gaze and gestures may say 'Well, here I am. What?', or 'Can I go now please?', or (a puzzled stare, as if answering the door-bell on a dark night) 'Is there someone out there?' One woman does a mime on the lines of 'Hang on, I'm sure I know you', and you can't help but grin back self-consciously. And so long as you stand there, they stand there too, doing what they do. But having watched enough, say you take a step back: almost at once, the figure turns its back and walks away, shrinking to its original, miniature blur - the homunculus back in its bottle, awaiting the next summons to life.

Spooky again, certainly, but the ghosts in this machine are really made to work. It's a nearly living gallery of portraits that 'seem to follow you round the room', and though you know the causes are mechanical, it becomes a doubtful point for the viewer who is in command here, you or the image. At least, it's difficult to treat these figures as merely images. You can control their behaviour in a limited way, but they face you like another consciousness. They're people who respond to your presence, but with whom (for of course they are only images) contact is absolutely impossible. All these ambiguous feelings come to a head in the heart-breaking image at the far end of the corridor, a little girl who holds out her arms in a gesture which is half self-presentation, half helpless shrug. Well, you have to see it.

Andrew Graham-Dixon is away

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home