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Videotapes from New York


In 1975, the National Gallery of Victoria purchased a collection of fourteen videotapes from New York. They were initially presented in the modern European Gallery (NGV: St Kilda Rd) on two monitors. The works were selected by Annette Dixon the then Curator of European Art at the NGV, and are primarily of the conceptual and performance art strains. It was one of the earliest collections of American video art to be shown in Australia.

Annette Dixon, in a note in the Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1975, in discussing the entry of video into the art world mentions what she describes as “the introduction of film and other extraneous matter into the work of art”1 as painting and contrasts this with the introduction of “a physical dialogue between the human body and things”,2 which might be seen as one way of thinking about performance art; and the the use of the sculptural space as a means for encompassing the viewer and thereby involving the viewer in a participation with the object.

Dixon notes that “For the artists represented here, all of whom work in post-conceptual or performance modes involving the human body, objects, photography and language, the video camera and screen are considered simply as another useful aid in handling the anti-materialist body of ideas which can no longer be contained within the boundaries of the self-referential 'art object'.”3

Briefly covering the history of artist's video-making she refers to a 60 second TV commercial by Andy Warhol in which an ice cream sundae is subjected to various visual transformations on the screen. She then refers to Nam Jun Paik, Les Levine and to Bruce Nauman's 1967 work Art Makeup – Black, (which is the earliest work in this collection), indicating that they were the pioneers of video art in the U.S.

Dixon comments that video was then considered to be a documentation medium for performance, as a medium to manipulate the spectator's perceptions and understandings of the world, noting Campus's use of image layering (compositing), Nauman and Jonas's use of the monitor as a kind of mirror, and the notion of video not as a completed work but as an open-ended process.

She wraps her note by commenting that “Although aesthetic concerns are always present, they are subservient to the idea and to the supporting content which generated each piece. [They involve] a desire for both regeneration and change in patterns of thought which have become habitual, and therefore mechanical.”4

The collection represents an important sampling of the video art of this early period in New York. Much of it was produced within the conceptual and performance art frame of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dixon's comment that these videos represent the desire for new thought patterns among artists that drove the consolidation of conceptual art as a primary form in contemporary art. When looked at within an Australian perspective these videotapes fit within the realm of Donald Brook's notions of the post-object; being explorations of ideas rather than simple objects in themselves, exhibiting clear social purpose, and being no longer unique objects but potentially produced as multiple copies.5 While the Oppenheim and Nauman tapes are more or less performance documentation most of the others of this collection go much further. The Acconci works may be seen as passive documentation, however they are largely not documentations but events in which the video is essential to the full perception of the work as it was being performed. Likewise with the Serra work with Jonas as the performer. Jonas and Campus explore the characteristics of the video system itself, while the Antin, Levine, Wegman and Sonnier works develop the narrative and documentary forms into various degrees of audio-visual excess using images and styles appropriated from consumer media forms.


Works included in the collection and mentioned by Dixon:

Vito Acconci: Pull (1971). Performance work in which Acconci circles Kathy Dillon. They attempt to maintain eye contact and to “exert a pull on each other.”6

Vito Acconci: Contacts (1971). Performance work exploring Acconci's capacity to divine the location of a woman's hand held near, but not touching, his torso.7

Eleanor Antin: The Ballerina and the Bum. (1974), Narrative of the travels of a “would-be ballerina” who meets a bum on a freight train.8

John Baldessari: The Italian Tape. (1974), Uses the “audio-visual technique of presenting a foreign language lesson”9 in which phrases from a guidebook to Rome are animated with a flat plastic mannequin, “tak[ing] on an oblique, cryptic life of their own.”10

Peter Campus: Set of Coincidence. (1974), in which he “multiplies his own image on the screen and juggles with scale and distance”11 disturbing our sense of the relative position of images of the artist through their contrasting scale,12 imitating the psycho-perceptual experiments using a special environment known as an Ames Room

Joan Jonas, Vertical Roll. (1972), “refers to the roll of the image when the set is not properly adjusted”.13 Jonas attempts to roam the screen while it is continually disturbed by the slightly out of sync vertical roll of the raster.14

Les Levine: The Ritual (1973). “an account of his engagement and marriage set in Hawaii” using a “tourist travelogue” technique.15

Les Levine: Dakini Software/Suicide Sutra (1974). Readings/performances of two Buddhist Sutras with Levine and John Giorno (American beat poet) repeating the same text, their voices swirling around each other over cut-up images from the Vietnam War and consumer television.16

Bruce Nauman: Art Makeup – Black (1967). Nauman applies black make-up to his face and upper body, both masking and recreating himself.17

Dennis Openheim: Aspen II (1970-1973). A collection of short performance works by the artist. Each involves an interaction with some natural material.18

Richard Serra: Anxious Automaton (1971). Two camera mix of an “anxious” performance by Joan Jonas, to music by Philip Glass.19

Keith Sonnier: T.V. In T.V. Out. (1972) “A collage of sequences drawn from news programs, family comedies, discussion forums and old films, interspersed with parallel activities and comments from several home viewers.”20

William Wegman: Selected Works – Reel 3 (1973). A collection of Wegman's “absurdist fictions” many of which feature his somewhat confused dog Man Ray.21


1Annette Dixon: “Videotapes from New York”, Art Bulletin of Victoria 1975, Melbourne: Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, pp.32.


3Ibid, p.31.

4Ibid, p.33.

5Donald Brook, Flight From the Object – the Power Lecture 1969, Sydney: Power Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Sydney(1970).

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9Dixon: “Videotapes from New York”, op cit. p.32.

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11Dixon: “Videotapes from New York”, op cit. p.32.

12Vibeke Sorensen, “On Video and Conceptual Video” Media Study, University at Buffalo, 1975.

13Dixon: “Videotapes from New York”, op cit. p.32.


15Dixon: “Videotapes from New York”, op cit. p.32.


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20Dixon: “Videotapes from New York”, op cit. p.32.

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