Archive: Issue No. 89, January 2005

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Lights, camera, action: 'artinthedark' puts video art out there
by Robyn Sassen

Nostalgia was the order of the day: The balmy highveld evening with distant thunder was coloured by the tiny, scampering pyjama-clad children and the shrill ubiquitous cricket bleat. The stretched, intermittently wind-distorted screens evoked the general holiday atmosphere. The time: December 2004, the place: a disused tarmac field in Melville. It was the ideal setting for a showcase of local video art, billed 'artinthedark'.

The 1970s South African trope of the drive-in was part of the project's motivation. Artist Trasi Henen designed and initiated 'artinthedark' under the aegis of Terraplane, a Johannesburg-based television production company. It featured two screens, three hours of projected film, free drinks and a great ambience.

The outside summer evening is a perfect platform for this type of work, and the lack of a discursive formality makes it more worthwhile in many respects. It prevents us from getting all hyped up and analytical about the pieces, and forces us, in the dark, to chill, to look and to think.

The selection of work by 30 artists was a little uneven, with Gerhard Marx and Lara Foot-Newton's And there in the dust (2004), an extrapolation on the horror of child- and baby rape, standing head and shoulders - in terms of poetry, readability and the beautiful capturing of a terrible story - above most of the other pieces (the work won a Kebble Art Award).

Big video-art names were there, including Kathryn Smith, Nathaniel Stern, Stephen Hobbs, Andrew Lamprecht, Christian Nerf, Churchill Madikida, Richard Penn, as were smaller names, like Mitch Said drawing from Wits's senior student body. Henen's own film work, in the form of a quirky Panty piece with bottom halves of young underwear-clad bodies, interspersed the works, in brief, tantalizing bytes.

In this selection of videos, interesting issues were raised in a variety of contexts and showcasing a variety of multimedia skills.

Video art's status in galleries in this country is still uncertain, and often on group shows it is the multimedia works that might be out of order of the day and staring blank-faced at a screen never impresses anyone. It's about galleries becoming technologically able to embrace the medium, and about gallery visitors and exhibiting artists being able and willing to demand this.

In 'artinthedark', one danger is made clear. It is, however, the danger of a burgeoning art tradition: being too indulgently self-focused. Trying to express the ineffable in a broadly abstract medium might make for beautiful exercises in self-contemplation, but can it seduce a viewer? I don't mean a buyership; art of this nature is seldom commercial, but the artist's challenge is to create without the crutch of explanatory text.

The viewer should be able to ride on the magnificence, the sense of startle that the work is able to create and carry. This is reflected to some extent in the selection of work that Henen has curated, but not enough.

The question, then, remains: Will this year see 'artinthedark II'?