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At the Museum of Contemporary Art

to March 15

For those unschooled in the history of video art, here’s the abstract: Take a canvas, glue on a quilted bedspread, and add a dollop of paint: It’s an assemblage. Take an assemblage and put it in a room: It’s an installation. Take the installation and get some musicians to perform nearby: It’s a happening. Take the happening and capture it on film: You’ve got video art.

At least, that’s the way it started. Over the years, the definition of the genre has been tweaked as often as channels change, and the form has crawled from the fringes into the art world’s center. In the ’90s, both Bill Viola and Bruce Nauman enjoyed major shows that breezed through heavyweight venues such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. And now the Guggenheim is hosting a Nam June Paik vid-in where the artist’s monitors and holographic lights hug Frank Lloyd Wright’s curves. The medium continues to enjoy its moment in the celluloid sun—even though we don’t see much of it in Washington.

If you’d like to acquaint yourself, go see “Breathe,” a show of two engaging video installations by New York-based multimedia artists Marcia Lyons and Tim White at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Georgetown. (Despite its name, MOCA couldn’t be further from a museum. It’s a three-room, fluorescent-lit do-it-yourself shop in the polite Canal Square gallery complex.) Cut the lights, draw the curtains, and pull up a chair. Get ready for the multimedia art experience.

When I first stepped into the room where Marcia Lyons’ two-hour video N2blak…a series of seeded bodies was screening, I heard the panting of a woman close to climax. The images on-screen—3-D skinlike membranes morphing seamlessly from one abstract shape to the next—pulsed and throbbed in time with the rushed breath. I blushed, despite the fact that I didn’t know what I was looking at—none of the tangoing shapes in N2blak resemble real body parts. But through the course of Lyons’ digitized exploration of her forms—inside and outside—the veiny pink bodies manage to allude to just about every hole and protrusion humans have. Floating in a pitch-black netherworld, the huffing, puffing, gently thrusting “bodies” respirating with Lyons’ intense breathing and computer-generated whirrs invite the mind to wander to illicit places.

Lyons, head of Cornell University’s Digital Media Fine Arts Program, has been manipulating digital images of the human body for several years now. This time, her source material is herself: The artist inserted a tiny camera into her mouth and down her esophagus to get this footage, which she manipulated beyond recognition with 3-D animation software. The resultant figures are pared-down and clean, imbued with personalities and minds of their own when synchronized with sound. They are simple characters in an elaborately choreographed dance.

Unlike humans or animals, though, these bodies show no trace of sweat or mucous or anything messy. Lyons made N2blak after an illness, and her endlessly mutating and undying bodies record her wish to be disease-free; they live forever without threat of debilitation or death. In one scene, a tonguelike projection reaches up and out from a rotund blob, doubles back, and penetrates its own creamy flesh. Miraculously, there’s no blood. In Lyons’ world, life goes endlessly on.

After a while, this fantasy land gets boring, because it simply doesn’t approach real human experience. Despite the sound of Lyons’ breath pulsing in our ear, the clinical cleanliness of her bodies is alienating. As much as Lyons—and you and I—may wish for a world where nothing ever dies, we’re asking for a pretty ho-hum place, if this is the taped tour. Knowing there’s an impending end to life gives the present meaning. Without a terminus, N2blak is like a Lava lamp on speed—and ultimately as meaningless. Amid her virtuoso image manipulations, Lyons has missed a chance to make a point about death.

If Lyons gives us an artificial high, then Tim White’s film is the antidote. Here, in the artist’s first foray into video, he combines two of his short films—”Presence” and “Abandonment of El Alamein—The Runner,” both made last year—into one three-and-a-half-minute flick that seems as if it runs forever; its beginning is barely distinguishable from its ending. White took a short clip of a World War II battle in North Africa, wherein a soldier runs for cover amid a burst of shelling, and interspersed it with shots of smoke and fire from artillery exploding in the air. The footage moves in and out of focus and runs in slo-mo. The slowness gives every movement weight, and the artillery clouds cascade so gently that they become beautiful.

White’s dispatches from the front are refreshingly free of CNN heroics: The poor runner, a dark, inky-blue silhouette against a light-blue ground, is in a bind. Outfitted with pack and rifle, he runs forward one pace, then repeats the same stride. White has him endlessly running, as if on a treadmill, directly in the screen’s center. This guy’s never going anywhere.

The film’s images, alternating as they do between abstraction and pictorialism, betray White’s roots as an abstract painter. And the inky-blue cast shows White’s painterly sense of evocative color—it looks cold and clammy out there. His film spawned three big 4-by-5-foot Cibachrome stills on view near MOCA’s entrance: One shows the soldier from “The Runner”; two are abstractions of smoke and sky culled from “Presence.” The man in “Runner” is ghosted, as if White had caught him between frames when he hit Pause. A harsh light, perhaps from a passing helicopter, shines down from above, illuminating the rocky landscape that looks like the surface of Mars. This still has a quiet, otherworldly presence, like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But it is the uneasy soundtrack that makes the strongest impression. Like Lyons’ N2blak, White’s film is accompanied by lots of heavy breathing. Here, those sounds bring us closer to his subject: With the soldier’s hot, wet breath in our ear, the artist puts us closer to a place that privileged young Americans never experience firsthand, so accustomed are we to watching Christiane Amanpour’s Bosnian dispatches from the warm embrace of our living-room armchairs.

White’s film reminds me of Bill Viola’s uber-slow-mo videos, like “The Greeting.” In that piece, two women stand chatting, their neo-grec draperies flowing languidly in the breeze. Minutes later, another woman arrives. That’s it. Viola uses the technique to write everyday gestures large; White, laying the sound of the soldier’s gasping over his protracted movements, shows us his runner’s frustration and growing paranoia. Our guy is practically frozen, perpetually running for cover. If this were a Monty Python sketch, they’d have him running forward and getting ever smaller. But then it would be funny. This isn’t. CP