Art New England

Sculpting with Light: Denise Marika


The history of video installation art is as much about technological change as it is about changes in artistic fashion. As soon as artists became interested in video, they tried to work with the image as a sculptural element. Early pioneers like Nam June Paik explored the power of the television set in works like TV Buddha (1974), a piece in which a stone Buddha stares forever at his own image on the video screen.
But because of the television set itself, this approach could only go so far. As Peter Campus pointed out in 1974, “The monitor is an object sitting rigidly in space.” To explore the sculptural elements of the video image – i.e., the light-artists had to work with this piece of furniture as well. As a result, much effort was spent disguising the monitor or pretending it was something else. The video wall was one result. Banks of monitors became architectural and the image grew into a mural-sized statement. Some artists went to great lengths to try to disguise the object. In one installation from the ’80s monitors look up from inside hollow tree trunks filled with water. But in the ’90s, the availability of new, cheaper, and increasingly powerful video projectors has had a revolutionary effect. Using this new technology, artists discovered they could work with the light itself and not the box it emanated from.
Denise Marika of Brookline, Massachusetts, is a video sculptor who has worked through this change to achieve new and exciting heights. Her efforts culminated in More Weight, shown this fall in the Gardner Hall Video Gallery at the Museum of Modem Art in New York. The subject of Marika’s work is the gesture, a simple human movement that she uses to build a sculptural form within a space, taking it out of the moment and giving it depth and meaning.
An earlier piece shows both how, even before projectors, she was able to use television sets to create a new and interesting space. Turn Away (1990) is composed of three monitors lined up horizontally on a copper shelf within a plywood wall. Stretched out across all three screens is a reclining female nude. She looks up, sees the viewer, and (embarrassed? afraid?) spins around so that her back is facing out. This shocked moment is repeated rapidly over and over. It never loses its first charge but the meaning of this simple movement becomes larger with each repetition. And through her arrangement of the televisions and the images they carry, Marika also succeeded in changing the monitor from discrete object into an interior space in which the nude resides.
In the MoMA piece, however, the use of projected video removes all notion of the television set: the technology disappears. Here Marika uses light and motion as a sculptural substance in the same way she uses cloth and metal. At the center of a darkened room is a massive object, a huge cube of pleated pink felt hold in place by two metal sides. A viselike metal beam crushes the felt from above. On this surface are projected two life-size naked figures. The man is unconscious (perhaps dead) and he is carried in the arms of the woman; we hear the sound of her labored breathing as she walks back and forth, around and around, within the folds of felt.
The image has immediacy: it seems instantly familiar. Often in life one mate supports the other, and many times it is the woman who must carry the weight. The figures also have a certain androgynous similarity. The female is tough, almost masculine, and the male has a softness as he hangs. There are very few images in Western art of females carrying males. The pieta comes to mind, but unlike the Madonna holding her dead son, this woman is walking, struggling to support her burden. The scene is more reminiscent of one comrade carrying another off the field of battle. Marika provides a clue when she says, “I really think that relationships and the things that were us in the cave days are still us in a primary way. That’s still who we are. I wanted that aspect [in More Weight].”
There is also a touch of hell here. The act may be heroic, but there is certainly no beatific light and her gaze is down not up. There will be no relief. The other body is to be carried forever without the possibility of release. All we will ever hear is her heavy breathing and quiet grunting. This is the human condition.