Video Work | Photo/Installations | Documentary Projects

The Independent, April 1997

DENISE MARIKA video installation artist/More Weight

By George Fifield

Video installation artist Denise Marika begins with the gesture. From a video of a simple human movement, she can transform the image by taking it out of its moment, repeating it, and giving it a new context. The results transform the commonplace into the universal.
More Weight, shown at the Museum of Modern Art last fall, begins when viewers walk into a darkened gallery to see, within the folds of a massive cube of felt, the video-projected images of a man (apparently unconscious) being carried in the arms of a staggering woman. The felt cube is held by two metal sides, and a vise-like metal beam crushes it from above. The room is filled with the sound of her labored breathing as she bears his weight, walking back and forth within the folds, forever.
Marika, 42, turned to video as a sculptural medium while she was working on her masters in fine arts at UCLA. "I realized that [traditional] materials alone did not speak the way we think and live," says Marika. "The performance aspect can capture activity and document what's occurred. It's important for the way we see the world."
However, Marika says that video alone wouldn't be enough, either. "Sculpture gives the work a physical body, but it doesn't let it breathe," she says. "One-channel video is dissatisfying because it's disembodied."
As a result, her work embodies three distinct elements: the physical sculpture; her personal exploration of an activity; and the video that captures her exploration. This process ("You have to do a lot of juggling," she says) often necessitates that she act as her own model.
"In order to explore the activity, I need to get myself in that exact place," says Marika. "I do the performed act over an extended period of time. The experience becomes very real and I react to the situation I set up."
It's Marika who bears the burden in More Weight, a piece that gains resonance from the fact that the video image seems entirely divorced from technology. The naked figures appear preclassical. Evoking a timeless sense of heroic struggle. "I did a lot of research," says Marika. "I really want some historical basis. The research started with Madonna/child imagery. But knowing that I was going to be carrying a man quickly segued into war images, which are the only ones where you find a woman carrying a man." She describes More Weight as being about "those kind of relationship issues of who can control, who is carrying responsibility, who is burdened" as well as "the idea of challenging yourself to do something clearly beyond yourself."
For Marika, that also means taking cultural risks. She installed her most controversial work near her home in Brookline, Massachusetts. Crossing (1994), sponsored by a local council on the arts, was composed of two transparencies mounted in crosswalk signal lights on a pole at a quiet intersection. The images are of a nude mother and child � Marika and her son � and the gesture suggests protecting the child from running into danger. Although the work contained no sexual elements, the nudity set off a blizzard of complaints. The controversy resulted in a series of community forums on the roll of public art, and the work stayed up.
Marika says her point was not to inspire outrage, but to gain a public forum for her work. "The most satisfying part [of the MoMA show] was the number of people who came through that museum. To feel that the piece could contact that many people is very unusual. That's as public as it gets for my work and that's very important to me. I want art to relate to us the way we relate to each other."
Marika's work can meet that goal even in the most austere spaces. When she was invited to install a one-person show at Boston's venerable Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in 1994, she projected the images of four nude men and women lying down and curled under the concrete benches in the museum's central indoor garden. Entitled Nameless, it looked as if architectural caryatids climbed off their Romanesque pedestals and crawled under the benches to sneak a short nap from their centuries of standing. The sleeping figures also evoked the many homeless who slept on benches just outside the museum.
"That was so much fun because I said to them, "Well, I want to do something in the courtyard,�" says Marika. This didn't sit well with Gardner trustees; the museum usually reserves a small room for contemporary art and under Mrs. Gardner's will, the Gardner Museum is under strict instruction not to modify the 19th century home.
"At first they [responded], "We can't do anything, we cantt change anything,�" says Marika, who used video's weightless nature to help them change their minds: "Tell your lawyers it's light. We are just playing with light."