Ah, Dita von Teese, half-naked on a trapeze — that warms a cold February morning. If high-definition burlesque is up your alley I suggest strapping on your snow assault equipment and setting a course for the University of Iowa Art Museum.
After stops in New York and Los Angeles, Robert Wilson has brought his traveling video cabaret to Iowa City for an exhibit lasting through March 30. VOOM Portraits consists of more than 50 video images, presenting a mixture of celebrities, unknowns and animals into often heavily contrived contexts of the artist’s vision and creation. This collection is the result of a two-year collaboration between Wilson and Voom HD Networks, a U.S. based high-definition television provider.
Wilson, 66-years-old, is a multi-talented avant-garde visionary, surrealist, playwright, sculptor and director. Born in Waco, TX, and based in New York currently, Wilson was an artist in residency at the University of Iowa Center for New Performing Arts in 1970. This Iowa connection was instrumental in helping the UI Art Museum secure such an ambitious exhibit.
With VOOM Portraits Wilson creates a hybrid of video performance art. He offers up numerous well known personalities, but confounds the MTV generation by abandoning their jarring quick cut scenes in favor of slowing down perspective to allow for the most minuscule gesture to be exaggerated into grand scope. A blinking eye, a tapping foot or a simple smile takes on dramatic significance in Wilson’s world. He knows precisely what he is after and takes the time to achieve it.
Some of the better known participants include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Johnny Depp, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Winona Ryder, and Kool (the Snow Owl). The presentation offers continuously run video loops shown in high-definition format on flat-screen plasma televisions, each roughly the size of a refrigerator door. Some only run a couple minutes before repeating, others run upwards of 20 minutes.
To make this work each scene is meticulously choreographed. It took about a day to shoot each video and a crew of 30 to make it happen. Wilson enjoys playing upon the natural or created back story each subject embodies. Brad Pitt with a gun, Dita and her, well…assets, or Johnny Depp’s feminine beauty, are subliminal characterizations that fans of these celebrities bring with them into this show. Wilson smartly exaggerates these stereotypes and packs the settings around each subject with comparative symbolism to sear each subject’s persona into a visual story.
The technical aspects behind each piece are superb. The make up, costumes and strategic lighting allow each image to leap from the screen. But in the end it’s the sounds that make this show pop. The images are sublime eye candy, but the score for each piece solidifies the moment.
Layout is crucial for VOOM Portraits. Due to the soundtrack attached to each image sufficient space is necessary to allow the sound to roam. And roam it does. By design Wilson anticipates the proximity of one piece to another and how their sounds will intertwine. The result is a carnival arcade atmosphere. Maniacal laughter, ominous chanting and cries in the dark entice patrons from one image to the next. The dripping water and shrieking owls are balanced by undertones of classical compositions and demented nursery rhymes. All of these sounds undulate and cascade into a visual soundscape that compliments their video counterparts.
Aesthetically this is a pleasing exhibit to wander. The UI Art Museum is to be commended for triumphing over this challenging exhibition. The majority of the museum’s permanent collection had to be removed and the exhibit space reconfigured to accommodate the expansive VOOM Portraits. The result is an open and spacious feeling as one navigates this showcase, which is helpful due to the darkness required for this medium. Only a few overhead lights are present. The remainder of the lighting is handled by the video portraits themselves, heightening the visual experience.
Although visually stunning and technically superior, these images can move at a glacial pace. There is a constant enticement to the viewer of danger, a tease of some impending train wreck, but none materializes.
Wilson chooses to play it safe with his glitzy subjects and leave interpretation to the viewer. A potentially more compelling concept would have been to place a cast of unknowns into these similar settings, leaving the outside baggage of stardom behind.
Regardless this is an extremely enjoyable viewing experience and reminds me that I must get an owl room installed immediately.