The 1979 New Wave song "Video Killed the Radio Star" kept running through my head as I made my way around the cavernous maze that is Art Basel 41's intermingled Art Unlimited and Art Statements sections. Unlike last year, when outsize and bombastic sculptures appeared to take Art Unlimited at its name, and minimal, formalist installations seemed to predominate the more discreetly coined Art Statements, this year was a star turn for the filmic medium in every stripe. Experimental works alternately exuberant and poetic (Rosa Barba, Iñaki Bonillas, Bruce Conner,) were shown alongside more slickly high-budget fare (Doug Aitken, SUPERFLEX, Claire Hooper), while less classifiable works—including the ever-absurdist and sadistic fabulations of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys—popped up with alacrity.
DOUG AITKEN, THE FRONTIER, 2009. COURTESY 303 GALLERY, NEW YORK.
Despite the spate of films by younger, international artists, however, the crowd-pleaser here was the contribution from the late, great, avant-garde American film legend Bruce Conner. His 2006 film THREE SCREEN RAY, made two years before he passed away and shown here by Michael Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, resembles a kind of "cinematic slot-machine," in the artist's words. The film features a diptych of constantly changing imagery (vintage porn, mid-century war footage, fireworks, old Mickey Mouse cartoons) cut to the boisterous rhythms of Ray Charles's 1959 hit "What'd I Say." The aggressively sexual, militaristic, and cartoonish Americana on view is shaded by Charles's song, though whether that meaning is lighter or darker than the content at hand is hard to say.
Infinitely darker, however, was the Belgian filmmakers De Gruyter & Thys new film Das Loch (The Hole, 2010), shown by dépendence, Brussels, and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. It's populated by a cast of fluorescently-hued puppets—a painter with neon yellow skin, John Lennon glasses, and a sweater tied around his shoulders; his wife, in a floral muumuu and a vulture sitting on her shoulder; some neon pink guy with black sunglasses—are shown in close-up film stills as a robotic voiceover describes ever-weirder scenarios concerning digital camera storage and rape fantasies. This radically imagined though insistently DIY film is a triumph, particularly when contrasted with the odd, high-budget pomposity of Doug Aitken's immersive film experience, offered by 303 Gallery, New York.
Frontier (2009), which stars the craggy, movie-star visage of Ed Ruscha, as he silently emotes through any number of sweeping landscapes and gorgeously filmed interiors. The forced grandeur of his journey stands in uncomfortable contrast to Aitken's brilliant, breakout film at the 2000 Whitney Biennial, in which a young boy lyrically dances through the break-light-lit Los Angeles night. Though Ruscha is a national treasure, and God knows Aitken is expert with a camera, it might be time for the filmmaker to move away from the art stars and pop stars (see: Ruscha, Tilda Swinton, Seu Jorge, Chan Marshall) of his recent works, with all their glam and glitz and stilted "meaning," and get back to the basics—like skate ramps.
SUPERFLEX, FLOODED MCDONALDS, 2009. COURTESY PETER BLUM/NILS STAERK
After such forced grandeur, the small, meditative pleasures of Rosa Barba's and Iñaki Bonillas's films were wonderful to behold. Barba's 35-mm projection The Long Road (2010), on view with carlier gebauer, Berlin, offered a slowly panning aerial image of the gorgeous blue-and-gold Utah landscape (gold land, blue sky), and a huge, oval racetrack writ into it. Though the film's themes are a bit overly familiar (wastelands of civilizations, modernist architectural ruins marking the natural environment), the work itself is so subtle and slow-moving that it does not feel heavy-handed. A perfect soundtrack of music by Jan St. Werner and a short, moving text read by poet Robert Creeley only add another layer of incisive and strange beauty.
For his constellation of works presented by ProjecteSD, Barcelona, the Mexico City-based artist Iñaki Bonillas continued his beguiling exploration of his grandfather's archives of images and journals (some of these works were shown at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, last year). The installation at Art Basel includes Double Chiaroscuro #6 a small, projected film in which a black-and-white portrait of his grandfather is broken up into a minute grid of tiles, and then slowly appears, tile by tile, until the image is complete. If the process behind Bonillas's film is not exactly analogous to Art Basel's video-heavy program this year, it does stand some consideration—for each video and film installation at Art Unlimited and Art Statements appears to add up to the picture of the contemporary filmic medium, as employed by visual artists, as infinitely various and rich, and nowhere near exhausted.