Monitor Wizard

Video artist Van McElwee injects warmth and life into an ostensibly "cold" art form

Aug 9, 2000 at 4:00 am
With recent retrospectives at major museums celebrating the careers of artists for whom video has been a primary medium of exploration -- Nam June Paik at the Guggenheim in New York, Bill Viola at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, for example -- video art has attained establishment status, so much so that video, along with other electronic media, has moved from the fringes of artistic exploration to the very center. Van McElwee, whose own miniretrospective of work created over the last seven years just concluded at the Forum for Contemporary Art, says a recent visit to his alma mater, the Memphis Academy of Arts, emphasized that transformation: "The studio windows are covered up, and they all have computers. It's like this inner world imploding."

For McElwee, who has been working with video for 25 years -- and who, back in his grad-school days at Washington University in the mid-'70s, felt the need to "defend the sincerity" of his endeavors to both faculty and peers -- the overall acceptance of electronic media doesn't cause him to rejoice: "It's a little frightening to me to see everything sucked into that pipe. Sophisticated technology will not improve a bad idea. It'll just complicate it -- and deliver it to lots of people."

McElwee, who teaches at Webster University, is a bit of an anachronism, considering how fashionable his chosen medium has become. He speaks with a soft Southern accent that traces back to his upbringing in Meridian, Miss., "which is one reason why I don't need a lot of stimulation to do art -- just a little red dirt and some vegetation." He began his artistic studies as a painter, then as a printmaker, but his greatest proficiency as a young artist was in drawing the human figure. He still thinks of the pencil as "the most sophisticated art-making tool that was ever created," and his technologically advanced, and highly effective, video and sound constructions usually begin with pencil and paper. "I think of video as a collage medium, primarily," he says. "I think of the recorded image and sounds as raw material, which requires mixing them together, combining them, cutting them up, repositioning, reconfiguring in different ways. It's almost like an image is a pigment on a palette to work with, rather than something that has an important documentary reference attached to it."

Pad and pencil, a passion for the assemblage of forms -- these low-tech concerns are partly what keep McElwee's video art, a presumably "cold" medium, from becoming just more technological dazzle. "I like for the work to be for people," he says. "Not so much about people but for people." So when McElwee explores the spidery, inhuman forms of radio antennae and transmitters in "Radio Island," it is not a great leap, for the artist or the viewer, to merge these purely technical structures with pagoda forms, "a symbol for enlightenment," as McElwee describes them. For the video installation of "Radio Island" at the Forum, McElwee stacked four monitors on top of one another as images of the ancient and ethereal pagoda structures modulated with the contemporary -- and ethereal in their own way, connecting people invisibly through the ether -- antennae and transmitters.

McElwee employs the most basic rhetorical strategy -- comparison and contrast -- visually in his videos and video installations. "It's interesting how the pagoda form resonates with radio antennae, microwave transmitters. There's a contrast as well as a harmony between those things." Not unlike another St. Louis artist, Sue Eisler, McElwee's work achieves an alchemical power -- the technical, inhuman transmitter attains organic properties as the pagoda form becomes pure design.

This type of transformation -- or "modulation," to use a word that fits more precisely the electronic medium McElwee employs -- is evident in "Luxor" as well. Subtitled "A Moment of Hyperreality," the video continually juxtaposes Luxor, Egypt, with Las Vegas' Luxor hotel and casino. The sphinx of Las Vegas' Luxor is shown in its enamel gleam with a stream of time-lapsed speeding stars in the background. Strings of chandelier lights in Luxor, Las Vegas, modulate into strings of electric lights in the streets of ancient -- yet at the same time modern -- Luxor, Egypt. The effect is both stunning and absurd, especially as McElwee juxtaposes the images of the great pyramids -- the rough stone of Egypt and the smooth glass of Vegas.

"I've always been interested in fake things," McElwee says of the inspiration for "Luxor." "I remember, as a kid in New Orleans in the '50s, seeing a Formica counter in a restaurant that had Mesopotamian cuneiform, and it just blew my mind. This was so wonderful, so much better than the actual clay. Fake things have so many layers and depth and irony.

"There seemed to be a lot of possibilities for infinite play with those two locations. Luxor, Egypt, with the overlay of Arabic culture -- that's a real place that's pretty complex in terms of images and sounds. Then you have Luxor, Las Vegas, the huge casino complex that is not only a fake Egypt but it's also a casino. So how do these things contrast, how are they the same, what sort of numerological correspondences exist between the numbers and the chants and the now and the eternal?"

The video installation "Procession" consists of a row of monitors aligned slightly off-center to one another on the floor so each screen can be seen simultaneously. Images from different parades appear like waves continually breaking toward the viewer, with baton twirlers, flag wavers, floats in the shape of Spanish galleons shooting confetti from their cannons, monster trucks, Shriners on camels, and penguin-suited marchers waving to crowds. One sequence reveals McElwee's sly sense of humor: Two beauty queens in revealing bodysuits are interwoven with the image of a man dressed as a bishop, apparently blessing their exposed cleavage as a monkey swings over his miter. "Procession" again reveals the artist's appreciation of fakery and, more seriously, his investigation into the nature of reality, or what F. Scott Fitzgerald called "the unreality of reality."

"I don't have fixed ideas of what reality is," says McElwee. "It seems to be something infinitely malleable and changeable, and interestingly enough, because of changes in technology, it seems to be mutating in some unexpected ways. I think that altering reality through the manipulation of recorded fragments of the world is a way of altering awareness, but it also has a symbolic power that relates to the very modulation of reality itself, and that's an important use of video."

McElwee does not consider it the artist's job to create a true representation of reality. "Picasso said, 'I don't paint what I see; I paint what I think.' I don't see art as representation of the real. I don't see it as unreal, either. It seems like the creation or the further development of the real. I'd say 'evolution,' but that sounds too New Agey," he laughs.

The "modulation of reality" that McElwee investigates involves the most basic elements -- time and space. He describes the installation of "Procession," for example, as "a temporal event recurring infinitely on each screen and is spread out like a standing waveform in the gallery. The viewer is literally able to wander in and out of this temporal event. It's a way of playing with dimensionality. And not so much in a totally controlled way that I fully understand myself. It's just a playground for taking time and space here, and there's another time and space there, and there's another time and space.

"And then you put them into this relationship and they create clusters. If a four-dimensional form passed through this building, it might appear over there, and then over there, in different times and places." McElwee refers to the installation "Confluence," which is composed of a cluster of monitors showing a liquid melding of various crowded environments, street scenes and passageways: "It's like one thing, but it's happening in different times and places all over the gallery. But if you think of it as one thing, you have to think of it outside of that time and space. But that's not hard to do, because once you've seen it you think of it as one thing. It is one thing. It's multidimensional. If I asked you to think of your hand, you don't think about one view of your hand. You think of the whole thing."

In describing these complex relationships of time, space, dimension and electronic media, it's characteristic that McElwee, the accomplished practitioner of figure drawing, returns to the human hand. Despite the pulsing disequilibrium of sound and image that is emblematic of McElwee's work, there is a human center, one that strives to contain the multiplicity of experience in a real core.

"Confluence" could serve as a title for much of McElwee's work, his monitors acting as conduit to multiple realities, creating yet another reality. McElwee's artistic drive to merge time, space and form, "the further development of the real," is partly inspired by a kind of vision or feeling he's long held. He jokes that he's written some bad poems about the idea, but perhaps through electronic media he's coming closer to making it manifest. "I've often felt like that deep, deep inside of me," he says, "there was some sort of translucent, darkly fluorescent opal where the world poured through it.

"Somewhere there's an opening in the whole world, like a vapor."