Denise Marika '77: Body Projections
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.
Denise Marika is one of the foremost artists today using
projected video imagery as a sculptural medium. Throughout her career,
Marikas 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. Marikas process transforms highly specific, personal,
and transitory events into statements of universal depth and meaning.
This essay seeks both to address Marikas work within the context
of video art and also to examine her interest in exploring human relations
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 themselvesin
fact most video artists, including Bruce Nauman, did so at the beginning
of their careersbut as the idea of story-telling on a grand scale
(for video art) developed, many began working from scripts with actors
and friends. Tony Ourslers 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 persons 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 artists 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, 1999where the figure
shields herself from threatening objectsor active as in Unearthed,
2001where 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 Birnbaums Rio Videowall, 1989, and
Nam June Paiks 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
One of Marikas 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.
Marikas 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 Marikas world-view. A great deal
of the power of Marikas 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 statesup 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
Marikas 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 ones 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 Marikas 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 figures 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.
Marikas 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 figuresalways herself or members of
her familydo 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. Marikas work is less about
the human body as an aesthetic object than about the beauty of human endurance.
The vulnerability of Marikas 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
artists 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. Marikas 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 meditativewho 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.