By Heather Corcoran
The Metropolitan is quietly changing its reputation as the stodgy grandfather of the New York art scene with a series of contemporary art exhibitions.
Scattered throughout two tucked-away mezzanine galleries and one hallway, two current exhibits are tackling new media: art that involves technology like video and the Web. Curated by the Department of Photographs, “Closed Circuit: Video and New Media at the Metropolitan” and “Series and Sequence: Modern Photographs from the Collection,” include eight works – 80 percent of the department’s collection of new media. Only one has ever been exhibited before.
“What we’ve tried to do is maybe move at a little bit slower pace, but also stretch the boundaries; with one foot back on the shores of tradition,” said Douglas Eklund, an assistant curator of photography. Though film and video became a force in the art world in the 1960s, they weren’t represented in the museum’s collection until 2001, with the purchase of Ann Hamilton’s video “abc.”
When curators from the museum saw the work at an art fair, it was like “a light bulb went on over our heads,” Eklund said. Falling in love with the video, they started thinking about collecting moving images, something that had never been done at the museum.
The show takes up two galleries in the mezzanine of the modern art wing, with new media work ranging from 19 seconds to 24 hours in length; from Jim Campbell’s flickering LED display that looks like a moving Lite Brite, to Omer Fast’s dual-projection video “Spielberg’s List,” which matches interviews with historians and Holocaust survivors with footage of tourists sites inspired by Steven Spielberg’s film, “Schindler’s List.”
Hamilton’s “abc” opens the “Closed Circuit” show, which was organized by Eklund. The 15-inch screen is implanted into the wall, and on it, a finger slowly traces an inky, sepia-toned alphabet. It’s silent and slow, closer to a daguerreotype than a high-budget film à la Matthew Barney. For the Department of Photographs, this link to photographic aesthetic is what sparked their interest in collecting work that shows the evolution of the photograph into the video.
For Eklund and the rest of the department, expanding a new collection in today’s hot market presents some challenges. “What’s really fun for me is to work on acquiring all these things for the Met, really acquiring the highest level of the most contemporary things, and trying to get the things while you still can,” he said. That means sticking to work with a photographic edge.
Many of the works in the show are actually composites of still images, like the show’s namesake, Lutz Bacher’s “Closed Circuit.” The 40-minute silent video is a series of film stills from a camera mounted above the desk of gallerist and Andy Warhol superstar Pat Hearn. The result is a staccato dance, as Hearn and her guests hop around on a grainy video tape.
In the downstairs hallway, the companion exhibition, “Series and Sequence,” lays out the prehistory of video. Starting in the 1960s, the photographs show off a time when counterculture artists were challenging the notion that an idea should be captured in a single image, said Eklund. In a series by performance artist Vito Acconci, a string of photographs depict a stunned crowd. They had come to see Acconci perform, not realizing that as he walked across a stage and snapped their pictures, they were actually the performance.
For the department, the overlooked hallway has been a place to pack a few surprises, like the photographs of active German photographer Thomas Struth. “That was one of the first shocker moments, when people just said, ‘At the Met? I can’t believe they’re doing that’,” said Eklund. And he thinks that for many, a show of video in a museum known more for its ancient Greek vases and medieval sculpture will shock even more.
Later this year, the museum continues its turn towards the contemporary, this time through the modern art department. Six new works by living Leipzig painter Neo Rauch will be the third installation of a series relating the work of living artists to historical works in the collection. The Met may not have the avant-garde cache of some trendy Williamsburg gallery, but it’s asserting itself as a power player in the world of contemporary art.