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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar


Alumna Denise Marika '77: Body Projections

Essay about Pomona alumna and artist Denise Marika '77 taken from the brochure for the Pomona College Museum of Art exhibition of Marika's work, Nov. 3 through Dec. 15, 2002.

By George Fifield

Denise Marika is one of the foremost artists today using projected video imagery as a sculptural medium. Throughout her career, Marika’s work has focused on the nude figure, presented in a manner that confronts the viewer and communicates a vital sense of the power of the moment. The startling immediacy of her work is accomplished through the identification of a single human movement that she then develops through repetition, building it in space as a sculptural form realized through projected light. Marika’s process transforms highly specific, personal, and transitory events into statements of universal depth and meaning. This essay seeks both to address Marika’s work within the context of video art and also to examine her interest in exploring human relations through gesture.

Historically, video art has strong connections to performance art. An important theme in both single-channel video art (video played on a single monitor) and installation video art has been the ability to capture and retranslate a performance into another environment at a later date. Artists like Ulrike Rosenbach, Peter Campus, Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim actually began as performance artists but abandoned live performance for recorded virtual experience, thus eliminating the live audience. This holds appeal for some artists, permitting the performance to take place in the isolation of their studios in the same way that an artist would paint or sculpt alone. Sometimes these artists would perform themselves—in fact most video artists, including Bruce Nauman, did so at the beginning of their careers—but as the idea of story-telling on a grand scale (for video art) developed, many began working from scripts with actors and friends. Tony Oursler’s early single-channel work involved sizable casts and complex scripting. Today, Paul McCarthy builds large sets in which his casts perform; afterwards, the sets become the installation within which the resultant video is displayed.

Marika's performances have always been minimal. There is no plot or script, just a simple act. In her early work, the focus was on extremely short actions: rolling over (Turn Away, 1990) or grabbing a person’s face (Face Me, 1996). Gradually, these grew longer. Another work, More Weight, 1996, created for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, consisted of a huge cube composed of folds of pink felt contained by two metal sides. A vise-like beam crushed the felt from above. On the surfaces of the folds were projected two life-size naked human figures. A man, unconscious or perhaps dead, is being carried in the arms of a woman (Marika), both figures being contained within the structure of the cube. The audio consists of the artist’s labored breathing. The loop takes considerable time, but the more extended actions are still repetitions of the same act. By performing movements over a longer time, Marika brings into play an element of exhaustion. Watching a series of actions repeated over and over in a single take, we also see the increasing toll they take on the performer's body, whether passive as in Recoil, 1999—where the figure shields herself from threatening objects—or active as in Unearthed, 2001—where the figure endlessly toils.

The history of video installation art is as much about technological change as it is about shifts in artistic fashion. As artists discovered video, they endeavored to work with the projected image as a sculptural element. Early pioneers like Nam June Paik explored the power of the television set in works like TV Buddha, 1974, in which a stone Buddha stares forever at his own image on the video screen. But because of the presence of the television itself, this celebration of video could only go so far. To explore the sculptural elements of the video image, which is created by light, artists had to work around a piece of furniture, and, as a result, much effort was devoted to disguising the monitor or pretending it was something else. One result of this dilemma was the video wall. Banks of monitors became architectural in scale, and images grew into mural-sized statements in works like Dara Birnbaum’s Rio Videowall, 1989, and Nam June Paik’s gigantic Megatron/Matrix, 1995, which used 215 monitors. Some artists went to great lengths to try to disguise the object. In his installation Eingang (The Way In), 1990, Daniel Reeves placed monitors inside hollow tree trunks and covered them with rocks and bowls filled with water.

One of Marika’s early works shows how, before projectors, she was able to use television sets to create new and interesting space. Turn Away, 1990, is composed of three monitors lined up horizontally, mounted inside a copper shelf within a plywood wall. Stretched across all three screens is a recumbent nude female figure who looks up, sees the viewer, and, embarrassed or perhaps afraid, spins around so that her back faces out. This moment of shock is repeated rapidly, never losing its first charge and intensifying with each repetition. Through placing a unified image on three televisions, Marika succeeded in transforming the monitor from a unique object into the inner space of the broad shelf that contains the projected figure.

In the 1990s, the availability of new, cheaper, and increasingly powerful video projectors had a revolutionary impact on video artists. This was the moment when video installation art moved from the box to pure light. Artists discovered they could work with the light itself, eliminating the box from which it emanated, and many chose to project the moving image directly onto blank walls. This was a liberating moment, and it changed the art of Denise Marika as well.

Marika’s installations today use projected video as a sculptural element. She starts with a video image of a simple human movement, then creates a sculptural form or selects an architectural space that completes the work. The projected light seems to be one with the structural element, and both play an important part in Marika’s world-view. A great deal of the power of Marika’s work derives from the tension between the ephemeral nature of dancing light and the raw materiality of the structural "screen." She uses materials as diverse as rawhide, steel I-beams, and huge piles of folded felt, all of which are carefully constructed into objects that contain the projection. The choice of materials plays an important role in the impact of each work.

For example, in Bisected, 2002, great care was used in selecting the fur-like fabric that frames the rectangle and runs in a thin strip down the middle, giving the work its name. Bisected is a recent piece, but it represents a return to the use of simple gestures whose meaning is amplified by repetition. The vertical strip of fur bisects the image visually, and the performance, a play on the title, consists of a series of simple acts, each of which has two states—up and down. This binary simplicity splits the activity twice. Divided in two by time as well as space, Bisected is a formal work of simple and classic beauty.

For Recoil, Marika needed a large dish-like object and found a source in the convex end-caps of tanker trucks. Flipping these, she used the concave side as the field of projection. The physical strength of this material contrasts with the ephemeral nature of the projection. Recoil is about fragility and vulnerability, the strength needed to defend oneself. A naked female figure, crouching in a large bowl, is pelted from above with smaller figures of herself. The figurines raining down on her are themselves fragile, often breaking as they strike. Both the human figure and her smaller replicas are vulnerable, susceptible to injury, yet she endures the assault.

The video loop for Recoil is nearly ten minutes in duration, and as in Marika’s early work, the power of the repeated act builds through repetition. However the passage of time between the states of the first and last figure thrown adds another dimension to the work. This performance causes actual suffering; by the end, welts can be seen on the back of the nude figure, now surrounded by a litter of figurines. The duration of the work allows the viewer to examine the likenesses, particularly when one’s gaze turns from the stoning of the figure.

In creating Recoil, Marika has used a revolutionary new technology, creating the multiple figurines by having her body scanned by a 3D laser scanner while in a crouching position. Using rapid prototyping technologies, she was then able to generate numerous identical figures with a three dimensional printer. The entire process took place in the computer and was output by the printer manufacturer, Z Corporation of Burlington, Massachusetts.

When Marika projects her work on the surfaces of an existing exhibition space, she seeks a location that provides a meaningful architectural relationship with the video image. In Nameless, 1994, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Marika projected the images of four nude men and women, recumbent and curled, into the spaces under concrete benches overlooking the central indoor garden of the museum. It appeared that architectural caryatids had climbed down from the architecture and hidden beneath the benches to sneak a short nap after centuries of standing. At the same time, the figures evoked the many homeless who sleep on benches in the park just outside the museum.

Unearthed is another recent installation designed for an existing architectural space. More than any other of Marika’s works, this performance, which is lengthy and contains distinct movements, resembles a traditional plot. Yet, like Recoil, it is basically the expansion of a simple act. Originally, Unearthed was created for the Worcester Art Museum, where it was projected on a 67-foot-long wall above an arched entrance. Here, the nude is in a crouch, her back to the viewer. She reaches down and brings up handfuls of raw clay, thickly building it up into a large hemispherical shape, as far as her arms can reach. When the figure can reach no farther, there is a pause and she then tears the clay off the wall with the same furious dedication. The subsequent acts of creation and destruction are exhausting, as evidenced in the figure’s heavy breathing and her back, shiny with sweat. Repeatedly the naked figure squats, building up and tearing down the elemental clay. Here, Marika performs both as Brahma the creator and Vishnu the destroyer.

Marika’s art has a fundamental resonance that reflects ancient themes; yet, at the same time, her human images go beyond mere reflections of classical art, and her nude figures—always herself or members of her family—do not refer to a formal state of grace. Nudity, for Marika, is not a reflection of our perfect nature. In fact, the circumstances in which her figures find themselves lead them to be perceived as naked rather than nude, unprotected if not totally defenseless, and lacking control over their position or actions. Marika’s work is less about the human body as an aesthetic object than about the beauty of human endurance. The vulnerability of Marika’s figures reflects the exposed sense of self that viewers experience in confronting her work.

In Hangin’, 2002, the performance is focused on a section of the artist’s body as it simply breathes. The focus is on sheer existence. More than elsewhere in her work, Marika is mediating here on the formal beauty of the human body. Marika’s world is often a difficult one that communicates a quiet sense of dread. But in Hang there is humor and joy, as the headless and armless body, freed from the need to endure or even think, cheerfully exists, swinging its legs above us all.

Liquid Glass, 2000-2001, may be the only work in which Marika has not used the human figure. Originally conceived for the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts, it is designed to be projected from within an exterior window. We see the ebb and flow of the nearly still water of a tidal pool as seaweed undulates gently. The horizontal surface of the water becomes strangely surrealistic when presented vertically, and the effect is supremely meditative—who has not leaned over a tidal pool and regarded the gentle in-and-out of sea and weeds as a form of breathing? The sea breathes, and we find ourselves breathing in time with it. In this way, the surface of the tidal pool becomes a metaphor for the body. And the cyclical movement of the tide, like our unconscious breathing, supplies the meaningful repetition that Marika seeks in all her work. It is significant that the word "inspire" comes from the Latin "spiros," meaning to breathe.

—George Fifield is the curator of New Media at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. He is also the Founder and Director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival. He lives on Myrtle Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, with his wife, Lynne Adams Fifield.