An immaterial symbolism – Art and video art
by Enzo Di Martino, Venice, February 2007
It has often been said that procedures in art are in a certain way connected to a kind of alchemy, since, on the one hand, they transform the matter with the use of more traditional methods of painting and sculpture, and at the same time they give body to fantastic visions: imaginary and unreal, but still persistent and capable of steadily occupying our imagination.
Beat Kuert has a good knowledge of art history, and his work, even if it manifests itself through contemporary means of expression such as television, computer and photography, shows with all possible obviousness those particular influences: both ideal and formal.
This should not come as a surprise, since for some time now the contemporary art system has been absorbing the sensational anticipations of Benjamin’s 1930s, expressing in that manner a historical continuance that certainly cannot be ignored, and also confirming that art obviously comes into existence only from history of art.
After all, but certainly not by accident, the Venice Biennale organized the first “exhibition of the cinematic art” in 1936.
Photography as well has become an important part of every contemporary artist’s technical and formal availability. The moving images in television and the still ones in photographs have therefore finally achieved the acknowledged status of forms of artistic expression, and the recent editions of the major international art exhibitions, the Venice Biennale and Dokumenta Kassel, provide undeniable proof of this.
Here we are dealing with the attainment of a “status”, social and cultural even, that has been accomplished through a difficult and tormented process in time that, in photography’s case, lasted for over one hundred years; there are aspects similar to other controversial innovations brought to the art world over the years, such as “the scandalous futurist ideology of the materials”.
The means of artistic expression, at least in their history in Europe, have always researched and have accepted every technical novelty and every new material that offered the opportunity of broadening their artistic expression.
The tradition of the new
An interesting fact that certainly needs to be mentioned is that in the early 1950s, that is, before the extraordinary artistic personality of Nam June Paik ever appeared on the scene of the video art, some of the protagonists of Lucio Fontana’s Spazialismo group had already published the visionary “Manifesto per una televisione spazialista – Manifesto of the Spatial Movement for Television”, some points of which anticipated all the events that this new means of expression would provoke in the art world.
Furthermore, by the late 1950s the “Fluxus” movement had removed the boundaries of the means of artistic expression, provoking a stimulating contamination of expressive languages and acknowledging equal and independent formal dignity to each one of them, including even John Cage’s experimental music in the visual arts sector.
This “journey towards art” has been difficult and contrasted for photography as well, the extraordinary work of Man Ray being a clear example of that.
Its definitive “clearance” happened through the “Venezia la Fotografia” Biennale in 1979 or, better yet, with the historical publication of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida.
Beat Kuert naturally finds his place on the inside of this “tradition of the new” that, at least when video art is in question, has seen personalities such as Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Bill Viola, Fabrizio Plessi, Matthew Barney and Grazia Toderi – to mention the most significant ones – take their place in it over the last fifty years.
For several decades and purely for professional reasons, he has also worked with cinema, television and photography, thus acquiring a knowledge of the “craft” and recently arriving at a more precise and distinctively meaningful definition of these means of expression, which in his imaginative world now imply mostly formal rather than strictly narrative and descriptive concerns.
Beat Kuert’s world
The female figure, the woman in her most comprehensive meaning, with all the symbolic worthiness this word can evoke – heroic at times, defeated in others – occupies a central position in Beat Kuert’s imaginary continent.
In his case, a real metaphorical icon is being dealt with, notwithstanding the “physical figure” – never hidden or denied – that is obsessively explored and repeatedly observed in various environmental and emotional conditions: at times seen in a relationship with the nature, emersed in the happiness of a dance and at times lost in the desolation of loneliness, worry and melancholy, in the excited dimension of eroticism or in the pondering and painful abandonment provoked by an incomprehensive and unjustified absence.
And even more, in the hysterical pregnancy, symbolically represented by a watermelon – probably his most beautiful and significant video – or in the everyday life inside a house. All these are symbolical figures that set up an existence, the lived, and which the artist perceives as forms/works of art.
It is therefore obvious that Beat Kuert uses a sort of artifice in his work, since he replaces the “performance”, or the direct display of the event, with the video memorization of the regarded event, which in that way gains a diverse legibility, and a different and transfigured significance; affirming in that way a more meaningful “intelligence of the reality” with a procedure that all figurative art has in common, even the one expressed by the medium of painting.
After all, as in painting, Beat Kuert’s videos place themselves at a distance from simple “representation” and connote themselves in a completely autonomous manner with formal values that have before been invisible or even inexistent, finally reaching – although not renouncing the “mise-en-scène” – the configuration of all-sufficient events, the accomplished “works made as art works”.
It is important, therefore, to point out the concept of light in his videos, at times enraged and sharp, at times bitter and contrasting, almost in the manner of Caravaggio, and at times widespread and enveloping, but always with a sense of latent and restless tension.
From this point of view, it can probably be said that Beat Kuert is a video artist closest to the manner of painting.
The ways of art
The truth here is that Beat Kuert, along with other artists who use the same manner of expression, has understood that video needs to be given a different substance and made into language and matter, instrument and content of the art work, all at the same time by annulling the “linguistic minimalism” typical of the video art of the 60s, naturally all in black and white, and moving towards a sort of “pictorial baroque-like” expression made of strong ignition of colours, accentuated by the interventions on the images made with a computer.
The “fight for the image” waged in the past through the medium of painting happens here between the natural coldness of the electronic medium and the warm gesture of the spreading of colour, also electronic.
A difficult story
The relationship between the moving images of cinema and television and the still images of painting has long been questioned among the artists who have adopted these instruments as means of their expressional needs.
Speaking of which, it would be enough to bring up Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurist Cinema” proposed in 1916 and the already mentioned “Manifesto of the Spatial Movement for Television”, published by the artists close to Lucio Fontana in 1952 without concerning themselves with the “historical dignity” of the new language, but thinking only about the opportunities of ideas that it could provide to art and its visible manifestations.
Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that Fontana was the first to consider neon as a material for sculpture and it is not surprising to see the great artists of today – in particular Bruce Nauman and Dan Flavin – using predominantly that medium.
At the same time artists like Nam June Paik and Fabrizio Plessi, to mention only two, do not think of themselves as proper video-sculptors, but simply as plastic artists and tout-court sculptors. It is obvious that the historical error and the formal misunderstanding of the expressive language hierarchy should be avoided.
An artistic dream
In this perspective Beat Kuert’s works lose their physical aspects and the realism of the performance they originate from – a sort of body art at first glance – and acquire a significance that reveals the same artificiality of the painting and sculpture, becoming subject to the identical alchemical transformation.
In his case this transformation is completed through the use of the metamorphic capacity of the video image, the possibility to intervene on the electronic “texture” of the figures using the infinite fragmentation of the pixels, or in a word: manipulating the image.
In this sense Beat Kuert, like some of the great painters of the past, achieves a sort of “indifference” towards the narrative pretense, while on the other hand trying to achieve pure and simple formal results.
This is why, in a strongly symbolical and metaphoric manner, he uses the possibilities of electronic colour, proclaiming its intrinsic evocative qualities.
The same happens with his photographs, which obviously derive from the frames of his videos, and in which the most representative image is stopped and isolated to consent a more elaborated and pondered reading, thereby giving the spectator a personal and characterized vision of the world, and declaring, finally, the poetic dream of an “electronic artist”, an artist of our time.