Carolee Schneemann: DEVOUR / Stan Brakhage: About Time

Friendship fuels artists' innovations

At Presentation House Gallery until April 9

The pairing of work by pioneering performance and multimedia artist Carolee Schneemann and experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage is both eloquent and moving.

Schneemann, who is based in New York state, and Brakhage, who died in Victoria in 2003, were close friends and colleagues from the late 1950s onward, and influenced each other's art in important ways.

During two graceful public talks Schneemann recently delivered in Vancouver, she described the intense personal and professional relations (which included composer-pianist James Tenney, Schneemann's then-partner) that fed their innovations. "We had an irrefutable but also blind belief in the potential to transform media," she said.

Her controversial early performances and films confronted a culture of denial, repression, and taboo, and challenged long-standing fears of female sexuality and power. They were also calls for liberation of both men and women toward a condition of what she called "pleasurable expressivity". The forms and intentions of Schneemann's early work continue to resonate in her recent DEVOUR, on view at Presentation House. A wall-sized, dual-screen video projection (with echoing video loops on two smaller, adjacent monitors), DEVOUR rapidly montages images of violence and disaster with those of domestic pleasures and the natural world, all played against an urgent track of found sound.

Visually altered and distorted footage includes car crashes, a burning building, and armed soldiers dashing out of a military helicopter. Most horrifying are film clips of a young woman lying on a Sarajevo sidewalk, the top of her head blown off.

These compressed images alternate with those of cats, birds, a baby nursing, up-close sex, and a mouth sucking up long, thick strands of noodles.

The power of DEVOUR lies in its contrasting of life's evanescent pleasures with what Schneemann described as the forces determined to destroy them: time, disaster, bellicosity. In title and imagery, it also makes a direct link between unexamined consumerism and violent militarism. As elsewhere in Schneemann's work, cats recur as metaphors of domestic comforts, psychic connections, and the human interface with the natural world. They also continue her challenge of cultural taboos, as if to say, "Surely kissing a cat is less revolting than blowing someone's head off." How is it possible that there is no outraged proscription against waging war?

Brakhage is represented at PHG by a loop of four short films, made between 1987 and 1992. From the mid-1950s, he sought to free film from imposed narrative and theatrical traditions and to fully exploit its visual (and later aural) potential. The impact of abstract expressionism on Brakhage's work is visible in the gestural forms and calligraphic strands and dots of light and colour that play across the screen.

In some instances here, he has painted, drawn, or scratched directly onto his film. In others, he has distorted the photographic image or wrapped it in darkness. Inchoate forms and textures and tiny dots and dashes of light barely emerge from-and then disappear again into-the primordial gloom.

The films on view are wonderfully complemented by new-music soundtracks, including one composed by Tenney. Extraordinary friendships have begotten extraordinary works of art.