Moving Pictures

by Andrew Baker

The first time I went to The Museum of Modern Art was for a Gerhard Richter retrospective in the winter of 2002. It was my final semester of college, and a couple of friends and I had made the drive up from Greensboro to visit some grad schools, see some art, and to become better acquainted with the city. Looking back, the experience is a bit of a blur (rim shot). We had gone to MoMA at the end of long and exhausting day that we'd spent at the Met, which happened to also be a suggested donation evening. Unlike the Met , MoMA is almost always an unavoidably expensive place to go (currently $20 required admission), but for a couple of hours on Friday evenings the museum is opened up to a suggested admission price, and these are reliably the busiest times you will ever see the place. On that evening, for one reason or another, public access to the permanent collection had been closed off, meaning that all comers were being filed through the handful of galleries that housed the Richter pictures. It was a mad house; way too crowded to feel comfortable stopping to look, so nobody really did. We all just sort of walked through, giving each picture a cursory read and moving on to the next and the next and the next, until we were let out into the gift shop. I didn't have the money or the inclination to buy one of the books they were hawking, so today, it's almost as if I was never there.

There you have it. My first trip to MoMA was not a memorable one. But it wasn't a total loss. It was also the day I first saw Bill Viola's The Quintet of Remembrance.

At the time, I hadn't been exposed to a great deal of video art. I was an art student sure, but I had a sort of quixotic affinity for the handmade; plus I was living in central North Carolina in a period that predated YouTube, so there wasn't a great deal of opportunity. I had seen a bunch of stills in books and magazines and a few old black and white reels in college. Early William Wegman, some Richard Serra, Dennis Oppenheim, and a few others, but beyond that, mainly student work. I found a kind of adolescent charm in some of it, but I was never really a fan. I had never been pulled in, never felt as though I was in the presence of something that was worth the time it was asking me to spend looking at it.

Video sort of emerged as a viable artistic medium during a period when artists had really begun to fetishize the concept of the conceptual and place the idea behind a work of art so high above its execution that it's often difficult to discern the difference between the real art of the period and its numerous parodies. And while I have little doubt that it was an exciting time to be an artist, the art that it produced so often falls into the realm of an amateurish spectacle of self-indulgent excess which fails to connect on either an intellectual or emotional level to anyone living outside the cocoon of space and time in which it was made.

Video artists had chosen moving pictures, a genre that presents so many opportunities of which we're all aware, but in their urgency to cast off so many the format's conventions, they were unwilling, uninterested, or, so often, incapable of even beginning to harness its potential. And, if you ask me, a lot of bad art resulted. But the medium was young, and as you'd hope, with experimentation comes experience, and with experience most living things have a habit of coming of age.

The Quintet of Remembrance is one of four videos created between 2000 and 2001 that were inspired by the artist's study of late medieval and early Renaissance Italian and Flemish paintings and their iconography. In each, a group of five people undergo a range of emotions while the camera records every nuance of their physical reaction.

Here, Viola specifically references Hieronymus Bosch's Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) (ca. 1490-1500, National Gallery, London), Andrea Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi (1495-1505, Getty Museum, Los Angeles), and Dieric Bouts' Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowing Madonna) (1470-75, Art Institute of Chicago). Bosch's painting acts as the visual template for the composition of this work and the strong emotions conveyed by the five people that vacillate between compassion, shock, grief, anger, fear, and rapture. Although they share a close physical space, each person is fully absorbed in his or her own emotional experience. Shot with high-speed 35-mm film, the actors' performance, which lasted approximately sixty seconds, is extended in the finished video to a little over sixteen minutes, accentuating the power and depth of each emotion.

Viola embraced the visual, specifically the aesthetic, attributes of the medium in a way unlike any video artist I'd ever seen. He seemed intent on placing the work, and the medium, into a new or, rather, much older context, engaging in a dialogue with art history while seeming to turn a deaf ear to the solipsism that had plagued the contemporary dialogue for so long.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In