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“Watch This!” is an encyclopedia entry. An artwork by Bruce Nauman greets visitors at the top of the north wing of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s third floor as if it were a chapter heading. Seeing this exhibition is like reading a capsule history on a topic you thought you knew.
“Art Make Up” (1967–68), Nauman’s video installation, plays on four large screens that occupy the corners of a gallery. Each video shows the same loop of Nauman as he covers his face and torso with a powder-white foundation. The sensibility of this half-smirking, half-serious piece governs the many smaller works on view in “Watch This!”, an exhibition that’s close to the core of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
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“Watch This!” is a broad sampling of media artworks from the museum’s permanent collection. Despite the show’s title—a very Technicolor salute to inclusivity—the show outlines a knotty thesis that the American Art Museum has been drafting in fits and starts for years. In this exhibit and others, the museum has made the case that the television set, as an object and a totem, has guided the evolution of media art more than cinema.
Nauman is critical to the museum’s take on media art (a big tent that, in this exhibit, covers contributions from 1941 to 2013 in video, film, pictures, moving pictures, video games, computer programs, and digital artworks). “Art Make Up,” like all of Nauman’s video works, has its roots in post-Minimalist sculptural practice rather than in anything having to do with movies or television. Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975), a mock culinary tutorial in which the artist demonstrates with flat, seething intensity the use of various kitchen utensils, is another performance of body and political identity. Nam June Paik, who is the granddaddy of all media arts (and whose archive the museum runs), contributes both sculpture and performance to this statement show.
“Watch This!” insists on a history of media art whose arc is sculptural and feminist. Organized by Michael Mansfield, the American Art Museum’s curator of film and media arts, the exhibit is the museum’s second by this title. Today’s “Watch This!” elaborates on a theme outlined in 2010 by consulting senior curator John G. Hanhardt in a smaller permanent-collection show and a multi-part critical lecture series.
One drawback of the current “Watch This!”—beyond its ’70s-esque title, which is a bit on the nose—is the show’s size. The exhibition’s 44 artworks are crammed into a hallway-and-a-half’s worth of space. There’s no room to describe how Rosler, Sadie Benning, and Eve Sussman found liberation in media art and its low barriers to entry (no prestigious degrees from university gatekeepers required). The plainest evidence for the centrality of the object to this history of media art is the museum’s insistence on squat, tube television sets, which dominate the space. Overlapping lo-fi bleeps and bloops give the show a fun tinny buzz, though.
Compare “Watch This!” to other museum showcases of media art, like the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s two-part survey, “The Cinema Effect,” from 2008, or its “Days of Endless Time” exhibit from 2014. For the most part, these shows deployed flatscreens and projections without giving a second thought to the role of the TV set or projector in the artwork. The works, by the Hirshhorn’s estimation, could play just as well on a laptop.
Provocatively, and convincingly, curators at the American Art Museum are tracing an alternate history, a lineage of media art told through its physical correspondence with the television—the thing, the appliance, the boob tube. Mansfield and Hanhardt are on to something, and it’s the story that the American Art Museum was born to tell (along with its unrivaled scholarship on the art of the Civil War). One day, maybe, the museum will give this thesis the space it deserves. Consider “Watch This!” an abridged history.
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