Meet Contemporary Video Artists Whose Work Intrigues and Captivates

Top Lists

June 9, 2016

According to Hegel, artists should be the ones to follow the Zeitgeist, and moreover, to trace the path they find to be progressive - that is what makes art rise above kitsch. Back in the early 1960s, video was a new medium, and the artists who managed to recognize its potential have unlocked a new chapter in art. Video art was (and is) seemingly similar to the avant-garde cinema, but the genre somehow became even more autonomous, relieved of an obligation to tell stories, and dismissive of all conventions related to movie-making. Video artists did, however, make the best of the new medium, using its capacity to deliver information in a direct and immediate way, to document entire performances and happenings, but also to manipulate reality and to play with the viewer's perception; and above all, to respond to a lower budget. The moment in which art overlapped with video recording was almost as crucial as the moment in which the Internet appeared, which is why we could reflect on the genre from today's point of view, and try to define its status today. Video recording is not something we use in the same way as we did in the past, the technology has made everything change dramatically, but the benefits provided by the moving pictures are more or less the same. Let us see how video art corresponds to the world of contemporary art, as we survey the art of 10 artists who work, or used to work, with this engaging art form.

Bill Viola - Life Reflected in Water

Bill Viola is probably the superstar of contemporary video art, and I'm guessing that you aren't surprised that he is the first one on this list. Throughout his entire career, he has been fascinated by the subjects of birth and death, touching upon the themes of unconsciousness and the subconscious state of being. These issues have been reappearing in his works from time to time, and they continue to inform his art today. In a literal, physical sense, his videos include water quite often, or liquids of similar kind, which are usually directly related to the characters who appear in his videos. The relationship between these splashes, tides of layers of water and the people in his videos is sometimes aggressive, and usually staged as an important motive, especially in the ones that are slowed down, as they let the audience contemplate each movement with greater attention.

Rachel Rose - From Very Far Away to Very Close Up

The next artist on our list is the 28-year-old Rachel Rose - one of the youngest creators in this article. The American artist gained great recognition after her installation at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, named Palisades. It seems that Rose has been interested in the notion and the possibilities of glass, as an architectural motive and a material which breaks reality in two parts, while holding an ability to generate a collage, one which questions the inside and the outside of a building (and of everything else, for that matter). We have included a video related to this work below, and we suggest you take a look at it while you're here.

Pipilotti Rist Pours Our Bodies Out

One of the most engaging ways to use the projected moving images is to relate them to the environment, and this task was mastered by the famous Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. Since her art is mostly based on visual stimuli, Rist emphasizes the power of color and the way it can affect our senses. Otherwise, her art is sparked by simple narratives, ones we can usually relate to, which was clearly demonstrated in her Ever is Over All video (the artwork became so popular that it served as a source of inspiration for Beyonce's new video). Nevertheless, the art of Pipilotti Rist was praised in the art world numerous times and her popularity isn't dependent on popular culture. Pour Your Body Art (for example) was probably one of MoMA's most famous exhibitions, as it has managed to incorporate the body of the building into the installation itself, and to make the interior more interesting than ever.

Doug Aitken Turns Architecture into Superarchitecture

Another type of relationship between video and architecture is encouraged by the American artist Doug Aitken, whose ability to transform plain surfaces into vivid platforms aspires to a status of a gift. Aitken stages his installations indoors and outdoors, often involving more than just a few walls of a building, as his works are often based on multiple channels. One of his most famous works was Sleepwalkers, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The projections were displayed on eight exterior walls of the building, and the intent was for them to be visible from the street. This accessibility is what made the piece widely recognized and acknowledged by a great number of people (some of whom were unwillingly drawn to the exhibition). As the theorist Sylvia Lavin noticed, this installation has made the architecture of the building transform into something even better than architecture itself (which we could, perhaps, name superarchitecture).

Ryan Trecartin - Everything Uncanny

The films of the American artist Ryan Trecartin's address the Internet generation, referring to the reality and the surreality of our time. Essentially ambiguous, capable of shifting your mood from repulsion to enthusiasm, and back to aversion again, Trecartin touches upon a number of subjects that relate to the lives of our generation, and the generations to come. If you consider his videos' ability to convey narratives into account, you will find that they are very close to becoming actual, "legitimate" movies. We encourage you to take your time and see the clip attached below, and we promise that it will make your brain travel through thousands of layers of different opinions and feelings, only to take you back to your own thoughts, wondering if there are any similarities between Center Jenny and the future of mankind. Enjoy!

Jonas Mekas - Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema

As the title says, Jonas Mekas was the key figure of the independent cinema and the founder of the New American Cinema; yet his work continues to inspire artists and curators all across the world. We are not going to talk about all of Jonas' films and videos, but only to mention that most of his life was recorded (by himself), thanks to the artist's otherworldly ability to capture moments of his everyday life and to find a lyrical tone in each of them, which is what we can all agree is an artistic virtue per se. From 2006 to his death in 2019, Mekas experimented with the Internet, probably even anticipating its main purpose before everyone else. This intent was crowned when Mekas finished his 365 Days Project in 2007, a collection of short videos filmed throughout the year, and uploaded daily on his website. This project has helped Mekas reach out to the global audience, and intrigue a great number of curators interested in the phenomenon of the Internet.

Video via Francesco Urbano Ragazzi

Joan Jonas Explores the Crossover Between Performance and Video Art

The American artist Joan Jonas is one of the key figures of video performance art, which embodies a transition from performance to video art. Although she started her career as a sculptor, the "search for a feminine vernacular in art" is what made her interested in the medium of video, which, according to Joan, was less dominated by men. Ever since the late 60s Joan has been exploring the possibilities of video performances, often involving her own body and physical presence, but also abandoning these conventions later in her career, and turning to different subjects such as animals. Most of her videos are stimulated by a story, whether a historical fact or a personal observation, but the narrative is rarely made too apparent (however, the title often helps a lot).

Dara Birnbaum - Feminism and Video Art

Another legendary video artist coming from the United States is Dara Birnbaum. It seems that, from the beginning of her career, her focus was placed on gender biases and the quasi-ideology that surround the essence of images and moving images within the mass culture. Birnbaum examined the aesthetics related to the imagery suggested by the media, specifically focusing on television and its influence over people, particularly regarding the problematic role of a female body. Most of her works are made by editing existing videos, which she reconstructs and puts them together in order to create new projects. These usually consist of the most stereotypical examples of TV program formats, such as popular quiz shows, soap operas, live shows etc.

Ana Mendieta - Video as a Document

The Cuban artist Ana Mendieta was known for her performances, but she was also one of the pioneering artists when it comes to video art (and the two were smoothly intertwined with one another in her art). Her approach to the medium was of documentary nature, and although she died at a very young age, her short lifetime allowed her to make more than a hundred video art pieces. Her influence over today's artists, and even the artists of her own generation, is perhaps not that apparent at first, but once you start scratching the surface you will find that her works were visually and inherently iconic. With that in mind, take a look at the image featured above, which depicts Mendieta's Untitled (Blood and Feathers) from 1974 on the left, and Kanye West's Bird-Woman (Runaway, 2010) on the right. The similarity between these two forms of feminine sacrifice is tacit, yet obvious.

Sue de Beer - Between Fantasy and Reality

Finally, here's another artist who comes from America, and who makes the transition between video installations and other forms of art seem natural and easy. More often than not, Sue de Beer's large-scale videos are conversing with their environment. It could be partly due to the colors that she uses and the mesmerizing filters that her videos are bathed in - whatever it is, her works have a hallucinatory undertone, which pulls you into their captivating aura. Both in her single-channel or multi-channel videos, and in this projected dialogue between the videos and the exhibition space, Sue de Beer seems to successfully fuse fantasy and reality. This is done in a manner which leans toward neither of the two, keeping both possibilities open.

Follow These Artists

Doug Aitken
Sue de Beer