writings, projects and exhibitions of Clarissa Chikiamco

Monday, January 4, 2010

'video Christmas tree'

Please click here to read my first 2010 column article for The Philippine Star in the actual Star website though I have copied and pasted it below.

Here is also a link to a photo of Nam June Paik's TV Garden.

Photo credit of 'video Christmas tree': Jenny Ng.

'video Christmas tree'
by Clarissa Chikiamco

Last week, I was running errands at the Cash & Carry mall in Makati when I found myself stumbling across an “accidental contemporary art.” I borrow the term from artist Mark Salvatus and his ongoing project of the same name. In this project, Salvatus photographs things he encounters in the everyday which are reminiscent of actual contemporary art pieces.

The Cash & Carry accidental contemporary art piece — not a part of Salvatus’ project yet though I have already recommended it to him — is a large Christmas tree bedecked with lights, balls, ribbons and LCD video screens — something that pioneering video artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) would surely have appreciated. The “video Christmas tree” (as I shall call it) loosely connects to Paik’s “TV Garden” (1974), a large-scale installation which had television monitors scattered amidst live tropical plants. In TV Garden, the flickering monitors, playing Paik and John Godfrey’s video collaboration “Global Groove” (1974), are in seeming sync with its surrounding leafy vegetations. “What is growing here?” may be the main question the artwork asks, not simply of itself but in the then and now still growing culture of screen media and technology. A precursor of sorts, it has been remounted in versions throughout the years in different venues in a culture that is repeatedly finding resonance in its question.

Accidental contemporary art like the “video Christmas tree” also seems to ask some intriguing questions. Set amidst a mall space festooned with red ribbons and balls — red, orange and gold — glowing from a most generous swathing of lights, “video Christmas tree” hangs LCD screens playing cartoons. The questions it seems to beget are “What is Christmas?”, “What is our idea of Christmas?” or “How do we experience Christmas today?” This accidental contemporary art is oddly and aptly evocative of current screen culture. There is, for one, the consumerism involved conveyed to us through screens. Christmas ads are on websites, on television and on giant-screen moving-image billboards that are increasingly pecking the urban landscape. Coveted children’s presents are difficult to untwine from the screen — toys involve popular cartoon characters or are marketed to kids as they watch their favorite shows. Laptops, iPods, mobile phones and video game consoles are the dependable presents for the young that prevalently use technology to communicate, establish social networks, gain social status and engage in leisure activities. Though it isn’t difficult to imagine “video Christmas tree” in a museum against white walls and done on an even bigger scale — which would make quite an impressive installation and, if we are talking about consumerism, would confer it “ultimate value” as a legitimate art object — there is something particularly poignant in seeing “video Christmas tree” in a mall.

There is also to consider at how screens have transformed the holiday experience compared to 15 years ago. Most holiday greetings today are arguably received through the screen: texts sent throughout the holiday period, punching “answer” to pick up a loved one’s call, emailing acquaintances and friends, giving a general greeting as a status in Facebook, Twittering “Merry Christmas,” Skyping with family abroad or monitoring the countdown to the New Year via television coverage. Even meeting up with friends and relatives for the holidays is mediated by screens as emails, texts and calls are exchanged to coordinate the whens and wheres.

Though “video Christmas tree” wasn’t intended to be art — it was designed by the mall managing director Jenny Ng with her in-house team of designers — and it still isn’t art, I can’t help but think of the deeper meanings such an installation conveys. Certainly, the increasing amount of screens we are exposed to made the installation possible and perhaps “natural.” If restaurants decorate their interiors with screens, why not screens on a Christmas tree? Yet, there is a certain uncanniness here upon seeing this strange but marvelous sight. If I connect it to art, it is because art, and contemporary art in particular, allows one to more deeply consider such things. Things in the everyday can suddenly give way to becoming enigmatic and meaning-laden, connected to a broader and at times disparate set of ideas. “Video Christmas tree,” like other accidental contemporary art, may be accidental but this all the more enhances the wonder and delight derived from such surprises. While it may not be art, I have art to thank for trying to grasp sights such as these.

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Cash & Carry is along South Luzon Expressway, Makati. Mark Salvatus’ Accidental Contemporary Art project may be viewed at http://accidentalcontemporaryart.blogspot.com. The author may be emailed at letterstolisa@gmail.com. Her blog of art writings is at http://writelisawrite.blogspot.com.

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