The father of video art and Fluxus co-founder, Wolf Vostell disrupts typical art historical assumptions of the founding of video art. Creating Sun in your head in 1963, Vostell is the creator of video art even though he did not see himself exclusively as a video artist. Finishing a two part retrospective of Vostell’s video art, Rooster Gallery inserts Vostell back into the New York scene with the show Wolf Vostell: A Possible Survey on Video (1983-1993). On view from January 22 until February 22, the show is dedicated to the last decade of video works before his death in Berlin on April 3, 1998.
Just beyond the cool glow of the television screens, Vostell’s manifesto “ART=LIFE=ART” prominently sets the tone for the Fluxus works inside. Constantly blurring the boundaries between works and mediums, Vostell’s works are at the same time autonomous and interconnected to one another. Located in the lower gallery, Sara-Jevo (1993)–Vostell’s last video work before his death–exemplifies this continuous blurring of works. The video is created from a happening of the same title that took place in Majorca, Spain on May 3, 1993, and also has a corresponding portfolio consisting of the original score, poster of the performance, and 3 prints created in response to the happening. While each piece is its own work, shown together these works display Vostell’s total integration of practice and life.
Creating the first video work in 1963–shown in the first half of this survey–Vostell recognized televisions’ power to captivate before they were considered a standard household item. To retaliate against a passive audience, he utilized video as a new language to force participation into his audience. This approach is termed dè-coll/age. In his 1999 essay, Valerio Dehò acknowledges the importance of Vostell’s 1954 stay in Paris as when he “drew the term ‘dè-coll/age’ from a headline in Le Figaro, which described the crash of a transcontinental plane peu après son dècollage.” Instead of adding images upon each other as a collage, a dè-coll/aged image would be broken down–just like the plane–to reflect the destruction of the 21st century. Dè-coll/age was used in Die Nackten und die Toten (1983), leaving residue of three happenings onto one screen, which resembles the rebellious torn propaganda posters in Paris during Nazi occupation.
Vostell’s dè-coll/ages force the viewer to make their own connections and meanings, thus allowing a different history than what was being fed by the media. This new visual language is loaded with political symbols from Vostell’s life. The events of WWII, Vietnam War, and the Cold War along with the simultaneous rise of mass media and consumerism reverberate through his dè-coll/age happenings and video works. While working in Berlin, he used concrete in his work to reference the Berlin Wall and criticize the aggressive physical divide. In the 1985 video, TV Cubisme Liege, a swirling camera captures the body parts of a female performer as blocks of concrete press against her body. At once errotic and disorienting, TV Cubisme Liege utilizes the visual language of television broadcasting to show the physical effect of Cold War politics, just as the cold concrete affects the body of the performer so too does the Berlin Wall physically affect thousands of residents.
The concrete reappears in Das Frühstück des Leonardo Da Vinci in Berlin (1988), along with identification numbers written on performers’ arms referencing Nazi concentration camps, which Vostell escaped this horrible fate by running to Czechoslovakia with his family in 1939. A dè-coll/age of 11 happenings, Das Frühstück des Leonardo Da Vinci in Berlin also shows performers, including Vostell, acting out mundane acts in untraditional ways–such as a woman placing fried eggs on another’s head and Vostell painting with red wine circles on top of a table. These mundane acts combined with the political imagery emphasizes that war is no longer a state of exception, but a part of life.
Vostell did use more traditional cinematic approaches to film, such as in El entiero de la sardina (The Funeral of the Sardine) (1985). Filmed in the countryside of Spain, El entiero de la sardina shows five women wearing only traditional black veils (mantillas), peinetas, and heels approach a turtle in which they follow for nearly 45 minutes until they disappear back into the horizon. A nod to Francisco Goya’s El entiero de la sardina, whom Vostell greatly admired for The Disasters of War prints, both works depict the Spanish ceremony referenced by title, which ends the carnival season and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Thus considered a time of rebirth and the burial of the past, both artist omit the sacrifical sardine and focus on the procession. Vostell puts in the minimal elements to depict this carnival while Goya focused on the merriment and sinister underlyings in the pageantry.
Even with three decades of continuous video art, many continue to name Vostell’s colleague, Nam June Paik, as the father of video art. Luckily, the two part survey by Rooster Gallery rectifies Vostell’s importance to this medium.