"Video 50" - Video Installation by Robert Wilson, 1978

There is no denying that Robert Wilson's "Video 50" is a pure piece of Surrealism, created on video in the late 1970's, but entirely in line with the defining cries of Andre Breton in his surrealist manifesto of the early 20's:
"(Surrealismtends to ruin once and for all all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life."
In Wilson's video sketchbook the "principal problems of life" are filtered primarily through advertising and television imagery, the likes of which were only beginning their incubation in the time of the original surrealists.  The traditions of the surrealist technique are otherwise intact, as "Video 50" repeatedly estranges the mundane gesture from it's mechanized routine:  a man wipes the sweat from his forehead;  a champagne flute is placed on a table;  a phone rings in an undefined space;  a door creaks shut.  Many of the images in "Video 50" are centered around the world of mundane objects, though the physical response to these objects is often drawn in a different scale, subverting what we expect, creating those psychic fissures from whence Surrealism feeds.  The man wiping his forehead dabs only one small spot repeatedly, though his entire head and neck are drenched hopelessly in sweat; the phone is answered slowly by the black talon claw of a furry beast;  the quack of a duck heard in an earlier frame is transformed into a comedic television interview.

But "Video 50" certainly doesn't follow any easily reduced pattern.  The more comedic moments burst forth in surprise, and just when you think you've found the connective tissue between the images in terms of hands, feet, or faces, the entire sense of expectation is subverted by something like an elderly man sitting in bed who slowly transforms through a primitive video fade into a purple hued cosmic landscape.  Of course expectations are designed to be unmet in works of this sort, and the way in which Wilson fully embraces "the absence of control exercised by reason" (as Breton, once again, would have it) is cautiously put on display here;  cautiously, because while the unexpected is around every corner, potential in each flip of the video page, the rhythm is hypnotic and deliberate, and the recurring images are consistently presented in thoughtful variation.  One image that emerges as a centerpiece of "Video 50" is that of a thin wooden chair floating against a pink and orange sunset backdrop.  Though very simple in it's design, this obsession with elevating and altering the design of every day objects such as chairs is a technique that echoes Dada/Surrealist intent from the early teens, evoking the earliest "Readymades" of Marcel Duchamp.  Wilson's work with furniture and architecture, often recognizable by clean, sparse lines and color, is central to his body of work.

"Stalin Chairs" - Robert Wilson, 1977
"Bicycle Wheel" and Marcel Duchamp, 1913
Wilson is probably most known for his work in the theater, collaborating with some of the finest Americans minds in music and literature in the last 60 years, namely Phillip Glass, William Burroughs, and Tom Waits.  There is a particular sadness for me in even mentioning these works:  Einstein on the Beach and The Black Rider were both crucial in transforming the way I listen to music, and The Black Rider in particular is one of those albums that is nestled deeply in the crevices of my psyche.  But, sadly, I have never had the opportunity to see these works staged, which is of course where Wilson comes in.  Occasionally I would glimpse a still of the designs for these productions, but it was always in competition with the rich visual conjuring of my own imagination, rarely sparked by music to such an extreme as with those two works.  Seeing "Video 50" now seems like an all-too-fleeting glimpse into the mind of an artist that I want to develop an affair with, comparable to those I had with Glass and Waits in the past.

Einstein on the Beach - Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass, 1976
The Black Rider - Robert Wilson, Tom Waits,
and William S. Burroughs - 1990
It seems that across Wilson's design work--whether it be with furniture, theater, or mis-en-scene--there is a commitment to minimalism, and an ongoing negotiation between movement and stillness.  Many of the background images in "Video 50" are frozen, though the subjects in front of them are active in some way, as with another central image of the piece that begins and ends the 51 minute and 40 second running time of "Video 50," a suited man with a briefcase teetering like a German expressionist performer on the edge of a petrified waterfall.  The rush of the water is heard faintly in the background, and with each return to this drastically artificial moment of peril the man's gestures involve even more of his body, the "teetering edge" stretched into a Keaton-esque k-hole.

One of the goals of Wilson in this work was to point out that "the still life is no longer still," but one can't help but question the urgency and relevancy of that goal, and the goals of Surrealism in general, from a "Superbowl Weekend 2012" vantage point.  As the gallery visitors wandered in and out over the duration of the piece, some staying put for 30 or 40 minute periods, others not lasting 30 seconds, it became clear that the type of engagement that "Video 50" establishes was not only interesting in terms of the images it presents, but in the visible negotiation of it's spectators.  The mostly kinetic play of communication that occurred while I was in the gallery seemed the perfect compliment to Wilson's images, as spectators expressed everything from mild curiosity to outright bafflement.  In a world whose consciousness is on the precipice of having the new Superbowl advertisements revealed to them, the image of a puzzled parrot against a New York skyline perhaps seem pointless, sending them quickly tittering out of the gallery space:  "What the hell was that?!"

Well, it might be hard to explain, but, in context, the image was funny...joyful even, at least for me.  But, the difference between the delight and humor of a "Video 50" and a Superbowl Ad is a crucial one.  Wilson shows us now that we have, in some way, succumb to the surreal, and maybe in all the wrong ways;  always the violent and derisive in drastic juxtaposition with facile humor and sickening sentimentality, all wrapped in a commercial package that serves no purpose beyond its own self-interest.  "Video 50" is a sort of psychic palette cleanser, or maybe a third eye squeegee, that, offered the patience of an investigative detective, may allow a cluttered world of images to emerge a bit more clearly.  Ultimately, it reinforced for me a rather important notion:  if we continue to conflate advertising, art, and entertainment we will only find ourselves more deeply entwined with the crises of education and economy that we have been experiencing of late.

Robert Wilson's "Video 50" is currently on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor until the end of April.  Wilson and Phillip Glass have recently revised their production of "Einstein on the Beach," and Nonesuch Records have re-released the music.

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