Preservation Overhaul

Video sculpture is art you can watch, but how do you save it?

Apr 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm

University of Cincinnati owns an important video sculpture by the man who basically created multimedia art, Nam June Paik.

But don’t expect to see Cinci-Mix, which was commissioned in 1996 for an interior wall in then-new Aronoff Center for Design and Art. Because the old-school components — 18 stacked rear-projection monitors playing laser-discs — started breaking down, the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) had to put the piece in storage in 2007. Six monitors had ceased working and there was no permanent budget set aside for maintenance. Further, it was hard to address questions about technological upgrades since the Korean-born, American-based avant-gardist died in 2006 without leaving clear instructions for the piece’s future.

That doesn’t mean Cinci-Mix — for which the artist collected video clips about UC life from students, staff and faculty — has been forgotten. Last year, DAAP sponsored a roundtable discussion on what to do about the in-limbo artwork. And this Friday and Saturday, broadening of the theme, DAAP is hosting a symposium called Nam June Paik and the Conservation of Video Sculpture. It has received a grant from Los Angeles’ Getty Foundation, which is eager to address questions of preserving and restoring unconventional contemporary art.

The symposium is bringing in curators and conservators from around the world, as well as several prominent video artists, including Cincinnati native (and Oakland resident) Alan Rath.

“We hope to come up with a template to restore the (DAAP) piece that would enable us to cost it,” says Mark Harris, director of DAAP’s School of Art, about the symposium.

But more than that, DAAP hopes to break ground in discussing a vexing issue for the makers, collectors and conservators of contemporary art — how do you preserve it for the ages?

Video art, which works with fast-changing digital technology, might be the most striking example, but not the only one.

“I think contemporary artists are working with a lot of material — plates, candy — that create problems for institutions that want to collect their art,” says Charles Woodman, DAAP assistant professor of electronic art and co-organizer with Harris of the symposium.

Paik, by the way, for many years worked with Cincinnati gallerist Carl Solway and artist Mark Patsfall to construct and sell pieces here for the international market. Also, one of his largest outdoor works, a 27-foot-tall robot, was donated to the Contemporary Arts Center by late arts supporter Al Vontz, so Paik has a specific local significance. (The robot piece is also in storage now as the CAC and others try to figure out its future.)

The term “video sculpture” refers to three-dimensional art — wall, floor or outdoor pieces — that has a built-in video component. It’s more than just the video image. In connection with the symposium, DAAP’s Reed Gallery is presenting an especially well-curated Video Sculpture show with examples of old and new, by top international and local names like Paik, Rath, Patsfall, Anthony Luensman, Annie Sprinkle, and Fabrizio Plessi. The show opens this Friday with a 4-7 p.m. reception; regular hours are Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through April 29.

There is also a symposium-related exhibit of Tommy Hartung’s work at UC’s Meyer Art Gallery (in the Steger Student Life Center), while two Over-the-Rhine alternative spaces — CS-13 and Museum Gallery — are also hosting related shows. (For information on the Reed Gallery and Meyers Gallery shows, visit

At the Reed Gallery show, which was curated by Aaron Cowan with Harris and Woodman, a miniaturized but still potent version of one of Paik’s most famous figures — a TV-watching Buddha — greets arriving visitors. In 1994’s “Enlightenment Compressed,” a golden statue of the Buddha sits in its Zen-garden-like tray, watching a small television that has a camera inside it. He is watching himself as he meditates. As we stand behind him to watch, we see distorted versions of ourselves on the screen, too.

Luensman, a Cincinnati artist, has a fun multimedia piece included, 2007’s “Flashcracker.” If you step in a circle of sand on the floor, it sets off a commotion of wire-connected gizmos making sounds from little horns and shooting off video firecrackers. It’s a little like going into a dark room and stepping on a noisy squid. In a good way.

Sprinkle, working with Elizabeth Stephens, has a poignant commentary on sexuality in “Stephens/Sprinkle Effect.” A speculum has been wall-mounted; in the middle an iPod’s screen shows what’s known as a “Duchamp Rotorelief,” a video in which whirly curlicues mimic 1930s-era optical effects meant to imply hypnotic spells. Marcel Duchamp, the French conceptual artist, designed “rotorelief” visual discs in the 1930s for gramophone play.

Showing the design possibilities of video, Robyn Tomlin’s “The Immaculate Reception” from 2004 features a tile-covered monitor playing a video with abstract patterning. Occasionally, the virtual colors and shapes match the “real” ones of the tile.

The most striking piece, so playfully beautiful it merits its own room, is Amy Jenkins’ 2009 work “From the Same Room,” a video projection in which a swimming pool is rear-projected from the floor onto an otherwise-flat, podium-like surface. It reminds you of a birdbath, but then a (miniaturized) naked man appears, floating on his back. He dives down and a woman emerges. This is to the accompanying sound of splashing, lapping water, and it really is transporting.

Care for a dip?

Friday and Saturday’s NAM JUNE PAIK AND THE CONSERVATION OF VIDEO SCULPTURE symposium (including a Friday night reception) is open to the public. There is a $30 registration fee; more information is available at