Video Art in Long Beach

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In the early 1980's, the Long Beach Museum of Art, then housed in a rambling craftsman-style house overlooking the ocean, was the epicenter of the production and exhibition of video art on the West Coast. I made regular pilgrimages to see work by artists from the United States, Europe, even the Far East. As a new art form, video caught on fast. Over the years, the museum acquired a vast library of some 3,000 works of video art, before most institutions realized that video could be art. However, the institution changed its priorities and in 2006 the tapes and archives were given to the Getty Research Institute for preservation.

The current exhibition was organized by Kathy Rae Huffman, curator at the museum from 1978 to 1984, with artist Nancy Buchanan. There are twelve installations and eighteen single channel videos in rotating weekly programs in the contemporary building adjacent to the rambling old house.

For example, a darkened room features the late Thierry Kuntzel's 1984 Nostos II, a white flame that flickers across a wall of stacked monitors before illuminating a woman seated near a fireplace burning a letter. Though this scene is drawn from a 1948 film, Letter from an Unknown Woman, the flaring light and sudden darkness appear to be the actual subjects of the piece.


Thierry Kuntzel, Nostos II, 1984
Nine-channel black-and-white video installation with sound
Dimensions variable. Collection of Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Another gallery features Sanja Ivekovic's 1992 Frozen Images, a video of a life-sized nude woman projected onto blocks of dry ice covered with a black blanket. She is sleeping, moving restlessly, as though about to regain consciousness. The gallery is frosty and, over time, the image degrades as the ice melts. (The Zagreb-based artist is slated for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art this spring.)


Sanja Iveković, Frozen Images, 1992
Single-channel color video installation with sound, 60 min
Wood frame: 78.7 x 39.4 in. and thirty-six blocks of dry ice.
Courtesy the artist and Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles


Shigeko Kubota's 1976 Nude Descending a Staircase is literally a structure of four wooden stairs, each containing a video monitor showing an electronically altered image of a naked woman walking down stairs. An homage to Marcel Duchamp, whom Kubota met in 1968, it was the first video sculpture purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Bill Viola, Hatsu-Yume (First Dream), 1981 [2006 restored version]
For Daien Tanaka; Videotape, color, stereo sound; 57:33 minutes.
Performer: Shinnosuke Misawa. Courtesy the Bill Viola Studio

Artists from France, Zagreb and Japan? How does this mesh with the history of art in Southern California as funded by the Getty's initiative, Pacific Standard Time? This show chronicles the extraordinary range of video that was shown in Long Beach, rather than artists from Southern California. But L.A. artists were affected by seeing what their peers were doing elsewhere during the years before the internet facilitated instant communication. The infantile medium of video art attracted idealists, artists willing to make it up as they went along since no one really understood the potential of the medium. That spirit was embraced around the world and exhibited, often produced, in Long Beach. The show does include the 1981 Hatsu-Yume by Bill Viola, the brilliant Long Beach-based artist who has done so much for the medium. Otherwise, it is focused on non-L.A. artists.

The catalog documents the history of the scrappy institution and its role in the evolution of video art, now as common as using a pencil, just as John Baldessari once predicted.

Banner image: Mako Idemitsu, Kiyoko’s Situation, 1989; Single-channel color video with sound, 23:19 min; Dimensions variable. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix, New York