Video artist Steven Rockefeller Jnr. seeks to draw our attention to the overlooked aspects of nature by placing his digital camera in front of a single, narrowly framed scene; a lake in a wooded glen, a Caribbean beach or a detail of a sculpture in an Italian park. Through this minimalist pictorial language, Rockefeller comments on the most neglected aspect of daily life, namely time. Rockefeller is on view with the show Young Masters | Focus on New York together with The Cynthia Corbett Gallery at Site/109 until Sunday, 22 November 2015.
STEVEN ROCKEFELLER AT THE MATTATUCK MUSEUM: THE PERMANENCE OF CHANGE
TEXT BY RICHARD FRISWELL NOVEMBER 14, 2014
Unless otherwise noted, all Illustrations are stills taken from Steven Rockefeller’s untitled 10-min ‘Fixed Frame Video’ series
Video artist, Steven Rockefeller wants you to stop and take time to notice the world around you. Our lives are filled with the pressures of time, perpetual movement and the built environment we inhabit, and we learn to function on a structured schedule— as the simple elements of nature surrounding us often go unnoticed.
Using his still-shot camera as a digital video recorder, Rockefeller pauses in front of scenes that might hold little interest for a casual passer-by or preoccupied vacationer, calling attention to the beauty and serenity in settings where ‘almost nothing’ appears to be happening. I emphasize the ‘almost,’ because through his lens he discovers— and invites us to share—the stunningly beautiful world of the ordinary, expressed through subtle, often imperceptible motion. Rockefeller’s multi-media installation at Waterbury, Connecticut’s Mattatuck Museum, A Park Bench View, fascinates with the world of the everyday, with mesmerizing results.
He calls them Fixed Framed Videos and the concept is deceptively simple: A digital camera is set on a tripod, aimed to capture a single, narrowly-defined scene; whether it is a lake in a wooded glen, a Caribbean beach, a tumbling brook, a portion of a statue in an Italian park, a snow-blanketed ski slope or a wind-blown treetop, each emerges as a study in the barely-discernable effects of wind, weather, human movement, sun and shadow on the subject under scrutiny. But, the true subject of each video piece is time—time passing in negligible, but inexorable increments—to create a surprisingly dynamic worthy of our attention. Our reward can be found in the act of discovery, as sustained focus and careful examination reveal a vista in flux, often at the micro level; but it captures the act of changing, nonetheless.
The artist carries the name of a well-known American family, but his lineage seems less a concern to him than that I and other museum visitors come to understand his work and share in his enthusiasm for this new take on a familiar medium. Rockefeller brims with energy, explaining scene after scene from in his 2500 video catalogue, how each setting holds personal memories and meaning for him. Over his lifetime, he has had the good fortune to travel the globe; for each location his camera serves as witness to the people he finds there, as well as the realm of nature surrounding them. One scene depicts residents of a small, poverty-stricken village in Papua, New Guinea coyly dance for the camera in the middle of a dusty road, as the tropical sun bears down and a pack of dogs wanders through the scene. The camera stands undisturbed, not following or zooming on the action—a static, passive witness to the human condition, an unblinking eye.
Another records an expanse of sunlit azure water off Virgin Gorda, shimmering, framed by weathered rocks and white sand in the foreground. Distant islands lay on the horizon as sailboats slowly make their way accross the scene. Each leaves a trail of foam in its wake, white as its sails and the billowing clouds overhead. Rockefeller describes this as “a dynamic postcard,” one that would lose its impact if the action were freeze-framed. As an artist, he contends that this ten minute long scene brings something important to the viewer that no other treatment of the subject can: that is, a focused intensity inviting a meditative or transformative experience for anyone willing to take time to experience the discovery.
The introspective theme is repeated throughout the exhibit, reinforced by big, comfortable chairs, rows of hand-crafted benches and massive slabs of milled, live edge hardwood lending a rustic, artisanal air to the exhibition (by wood craftsman and collaborator, Gary DiMeo). The motivation for Rockefeller’s decade-long effort as a video artist began generations ago. His grandfather, Nelson—a lover of the visual arts—used sculpture, both contemporary and classical, as a means for highlighting architectural settings, interiors and gardens. “[He] understood that it was not enough to repeat the excellence already staked out by our predecessors. He passed on a belief in the importance of risk and reward when embracing new ideas. We all loved him for that.”
Rockefeller’s mother is Anne-Marie Rasmussen, a celebrated Norwegian collage artist. “She has the courage to see deep personal emotion in the commonplace, in the honesty of daily labor, even in the stark reality of the mundane. For example, as a photographer, she saw in fishing nets and tattered country doors half in shadow, the voices of lives lived and generations past. Human emotion, both good and bad, emerged from her work. She brought to us a depth-of connection to her subjects which I can now see as an uncanny, brave approach to life.
Rockefeller’s father (and namesake) provided his son, Steven, with extraordinary experiences for any youth. By the boy’s fifteenth year, they had scaled both the Matterhorn and The Grand Teton. In those close, sometimes frightening encounters with nature, the artist’s eye was shaped. “I owe my father the respect he taught me for the spiritual power of nature, its value to us and the privilege we enjoy being in its midst. I do believe now that my video library embraces his reverence for and wonder of nature. For this reason, we as a family continue to be stewards of nature, since places like Maine and Norway were sacred to him.”
The exhibition is as virtual as it is tangible—a celebration of nature. Massive pieces of cut, finished wood set the stage for an appreciation of the videography. Artfully executed, each montage is thoughtfully partnered with a display designed to add drama and visual impact to the images. Two cherry red steel pillars, salvaged from the bridge the Rockefellers were married on three decades ago, support a flat screen on which only black and white images are shown. Here, the power of image is particularly apparent, as a catalogue of ten-minute, Fixed-Frame images rolls on. The stark minimalism of a snow-covered Vermont ski slope appears, at first glance, to be the ‘reset mode’ of the DVD player, until a small chairlift holding a trio of skiers moves obliquely through the upper-most right corner of the frame. The shot comes to life again, as a single figure weaves his way through a featureless plane. The shot goes blank for seconds again, but we expectantly await yet another moment of action. The persistence of human habitation and endurance in this bleak environment becomes the unspoken narrative of this surprisingly powerful work.
Another exercise highlights minimalism—this time, the saturated colors of a late afternoon Tuscan sun—a pale blue sky punctuated by the upper half of, David, a cast reproduction of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture, filmed quirkily off-center. He stares blankly at a point off screen; another object in view—the top portion of a cypress tree, ubiquitous in the Florence region. Rockefeller’s camera angle isolates the figure from its renowned surroundings, leaving the viewer to guess whether it is a still shot or a video. The only hint of live action is the shadow made by the sun’s course, as illumination of the sculpture ever so subtly shifts. Then, without warning, the crown of a woman’s head disrupts the serenity along the bottom edge of the frame, as she unknowingly walks through the scene, from left to right. In another moment, a pigeon alights on the David’s head—a comedic send up. Humor is at least part of the subtext of this exercise, presented as a startling detail. And the joke is on the unsuspecting viewer.
Nature garners top billing in these performances, marked by a bracing stillness that produces the effect of arresting time. But people, birds, insects, soft breezes, the hands of a clock, and the action of scudding clouds are the supporting cast of Rockefeller’s Fixed Frame videos. The artist’s hand is evident in his beloved devotion to artistic process—a commitment he has spent ten years refining. The power in his images seems rooted in a variation of Zen Mind/Body principles, wherein mindfulness of one’s surroundings offers a pathway to inner peace.
If there is solace to be found in Rockefeller’s video project, it resides in the minutiae contained in each scene. First, he invites awareness, as we choose to acknowledge what is present in each framed work: he asks us to ‘check in,’ maintaining conscious awareness of the image on the screen—and by inference, to our own internal responses. The work then asks for present-moment focus, stepping away from our street-wise analytic mode and instead, prioritizing our awareness of the present moment. The imperceptible ‘action’ found in these vignettes helps us cultivate the ability to tune into the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts and emotions that occur in the moments captured by the camera and, by extension, in ourselves. The risk inherent in such an exercise is that we may encounter our own solitude and vulnerability, and by extension, our own humanity.
The state of heightened awareness that Rockefeller hopes to capture is accentuated by an audio track, permeating the gallery space with classical music sounds. It is a useful, calming trope for those uncertain of how to approach the work. For a museum visitor more experienced in shutting out the clutter of the mind and the outside world, this extra layer of sensory stimulation might prove unnecessary. But, in this space so close to the center of the city, it works.
Steven Rockefeller’s Fixed Frame Video installation, A Park Bench View, is a dialogue with time and its revelation of nature’s transformative beauty. It is a series of durational performances that dares the viewer to hesitate long enough to discover beauty in the ordinary, realizing that—at its elemental level—the world is in a constant state of flux. The human eye, and brain, are accustomed to measuring change in mega doses: hours, inches, billions, tons, miles and years. Nature operates at a different pace though, one that is often imperceptibly slow. The exhibit offers the opportunity to become time travelers, not at the light speed of science fiction, but at the elegant snail’s pace of that small pond in our backyard.
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor, ARTES MAGAZINE
Steven Rockefeller’s A Park Bench View October 23, 2014 – January 4, 2015.