Alex Prager’s “La Petite Mort,” a 2012 video artwork now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, combines the flair of Mad Men with the dread of an Alfred Hitchcock flick. In this imagistic work, French actress Judith Godrèche is subjected to powerful forces. She is struck by a locomotive that might’ve been borrowed from a Charles Sheeler painting or a Looney Tunes bit; later, our heroine plunges deep into uncertain waters but emerges on a reedy shore unruffled. Prager’s work is terrifically American, from Godrèche’s Joan Hollowayesque coif to the explicit filmic resonance and references. But also, and especially, in the video’s narrative arc: When the woman played by Godrèche emerges on the bank, she is greeted by a community—a neighborhood, perhaps—a moralistic mob that stares at her, bearing down on her, scolding her as if to say, “Not in my backyard.”
The narrative thrust of Prager’s work might have a source (or at least a close cousin) in Shirley Jackson’s 1948 “The Lottery,” the short-fiction classic, in which poor Tessie Hutchinson “wins” the black mark and suffers the ultimate condemnation of a small-town American village. Yet in Prager’s video, there is also the kernel of a more recent text about social justice—#YesAllWomen, a massively collaborative campaign that emerged on social media last month to document how harassment is common to each and every woman. In Prager’s work (she is better known for her photographs), she plays up both the individualism and the anonymity of her heroines: They are always peculiar and perfect, but also isolated and nameless. There is an untold story behind the moment when Godrèche’s silent judges part, revealing a man, her equal and opposite, before whom she expires; I think Prager means to say that this crucible is common.
Assembled by NMWA chief curator Kathryn Wat with assistance from J. Rachel Gustafson, “Total Art: Contemporary Video” is a modest survey with several stellar pieces, some of which are recent acquisitions for the museum. It’s a welcome change for an institution that has not really stepped into the obvious role it could play as a booster of contemporary art by women in D.C., a city that offers them few other champions. Most of the work in “Total Art” will be familiar to audiences who frequent the international circuit of art fairs and biennial festivals, but that population doesn’t overlap much this city’s residents, who are rarely—if ever—treated to new video art by women.
While Eve Sussman’s “89 Seconds at Alcázar” is a decade old now, it’s still a mighty piece of film. (And arguably not video art at all, but more on that in a moment.) Sussman is even more direct about her inspiration than Prager: The piece is a direct nod to Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting, “Las Meninas,” a masterpiece depicting the Spanish court of King Philip IV that confronts the viewer with conflicting views and subjects. In fact, Sussman’s work takes place inside the painting: A narrator occupying the same privileged (and problematic) perspective as the viewer of the painting winds through the scene at the alcázar (“castle”), bringing to life its various characters. The star of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, it’s less trite than it sounds; it manages to capture the ambivalence of one of the most curious paintings in the Western canon.
Sussman made the 12-minute film with the Rufus Corporation, a collaborative group that includes the dancer Helen Pickett (who also starred in another art-historical film by Sussman, “The Rape of the Sabine Women”) and Game of Thrones mega-star Peter Dinklage. One way to distinguish between “film” and “video art” is to count the number of names in the credits (films have more). And to separate “video installation” from the other nebulous categories of moving pictures, ascertain whether the thing’s projected onto a screen or something else. Given a few loose definitions for video art, “Total Art” contains all three.
One piece that might be termed a video installation is Pipilotti Rist’s “Blauer Leibesbrief” (1992/98), a video that projects the nude, jewel-encrusted body of a woman onto an oblong screen, surveying her with almost topographical interest. A piece that is definitely a video installation is Michal Rovner’s “Data Zone, Cultures Table #3” (2003), a series of small video monitors installed in Petri dishes. The tiny screens show loops of crowds seen from far enough overhead that they looks like bacteria under the microscope—goobers going about their business.
The range of media mirrors the diversity of the 10 artists selected for the show, including Nairobi’s Ingrid Mwangi and South Korea’s Kimsooja. Mariko Mori’s “Mariko no Inori” (1996) has had such an enormous influence on American artists that it’s hard not to think of the hypnotic, ambient music video, starring the artist dressed as a cybergeisha, as a touchstone of American culture. There is no Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj without Mariko Mori.
But the works in “Total Art” never quite cohere as an argument. There are the beginnings of themes: Taken together, Rovner’s Petri-dish video and Janaina Tschäpe’s “Lacrimacorpus”—a Matthew Barney–esque video work showing a dancer in period costume wearing what appears to be a scarf made out of bubbles—might’ve contributed to a show of videos that take the form of sculpture (and vice-versa). But that’s just one angle in a show pulling in several directions. There’s no effort to move the needle in any one way.
And that might be OK—especially because it does not submit to the too-common pitfall of claiming to show strong or brave women artists (as if the default for women artists isn’t strong or brave; as if you would ever hear a show described as featuring “strong men artists”). It is a show of 10 women artists—and it is confident enough to be that banal.