Category Archives: Video Art

In the Garden of Good and Evil

Liselot van der Hijden Trapped, 2006Like her fellow Netherlander Hieronymus Bosch who put a mouse in a glass container in his painting the Garden of Earthly Delights five hundred years earlier, Liselot van der Heijden put two mice in a white box with a glass front for her video piece. The artist’s installation is as spare as Bosch’s triptych is teeming. Nevertheless both works stir the same pot—in a manner of speaking: First Sin. While one is biblical, Adam and Eve out of control, the other is political, the United States’ leader run amok.

The New York City-based photographer and video artist van der Heijden created See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil in 2006, against the backdrop of the agenda the Bush administration was pursuing; “a parody,” we’re told, “of the deceptive and manipulative use of Good and Evil to frame foreign and domestic policy… when evil is thought of as not-human, as a thing, or a force, something that has a real existence…”[1] Language and symbolic power are recurring themes in her work.

Three wall-size screens are positioned inside a rectangular space. On the screen at the end, opposite the opening, is a video of a single snake coiling and uncoiling, slithering slowly inside a white box similar to that of the mice, on a twenty-five minute loop. The snake segment is called Serpent—that trickster-tempter of divine knowledge. And on an adjacent small television screen is George W. Bush using the word “evil” in far too many ways, culled from his State of the Union speeches. “Evil is real”; “to see the true evil”; “to hear claims of evil”; “to speak with evil,” the 43rd President says. Meanwhile the mice are displayed to the left; their footage is called Trap. In a continuous replay of twenty minutes, the tiny creatures run around looking for a way out, distracted intermittently by a red apple, the proverbial forbidden fruit. On the facing wall to the mice is a reflection of the mice video and the viewers themselves, courtesy of a real-time feed from a surveillance camera. According to the artist, “representations of nature reveal more about cultural, ideological, political and social frameworks, than actual nature.”[2] We and the mice are one. Bosch, I think, would approve.



[2] Ibid.

Additional sources: LMAK Projects, “See Evil, Hear Evil, Speak Evil: Liselot van der Liselot van der Heijden,” The Village Voice, October 27th, 2006.

(Image: Trap, video still, copyright Liselot van der Heijden.)

“The repetition in our lives.”

I find a clip on YouTube called 64 Frames per Second (fps). The artwork comprises footage of a white mouse running in slow motion on a wheel; the film itself swirls high above the image of the rodent projected on a wall, and back through a 16 mm projector. On the facing wall is a video of a polar bear swimming laps underwater in a pool. Conceptual art is all about ideas, and watching the 1:15 minute clip I admit I’m stumped; I haven’t a clue what the concept is. My immediate thought wraps around the ever-familiar predator and prey discourse, and just as quickly dismissed since lab mice and polar bears don’t exactly exist in the same habitat. So I decide to go to the source and shoot the artist an email; I ask, Why a mouse? Why a polar bear? In other words what were you saying?

In the mid-1990s the two animals conspired to get Michael Oliveri to thinking about science and art, about the transformation of the former into the latter, through the prism of scale: the largest white mammal and the smallest. Oliveri spent “hundreds of hours” at the San Francisco zoo, filming a polar bear endlessly treading back and forth; he later took a pet store mouse—standing in for a lab mouse—and put him in a cage with an ‘exercise’ wheel connected to a carousel slide projector. With every rotation the mouse made, the wheel tripped the projector, advancing slides made from the video of the polar bear. In essence the art installation mimicked a scientific experiment; the mouse’s movement mimicked the pacing polar bear, both caged animals spending their lives going nowhere at all.

He then increased the complexity of the piece in the plural. Mouse and Polar Bear became Mice and Polar Bears. He dipped two-dozen mice in non-toxic saline dyes. The colorful creatures ran on six separate wheels, triggering six projectors that too projected slides of anxiety-ridden polar bears; the slides were now tinted to correspond to the mice’s colors. The conversation, however, was diverted. To his consternation the artist saw in Mice and Polar Bears, thanks to the multi-hued mice, not an exploration of the boundary between science and art but a form of entertainment, “a kind of miniature circus.”

By the late nineties Oliveri had had enough of working with live animals, of using them in his installations; he had also been doing other projects involving fish and chickens. He was exhausted from their daily upkeep and the cleaning and the finding homes for them once the shows had ended. But there was something he felt more keenly. He tells me, the “animals had a real effect on my soul”; he could no longer “justify” their use. In his effort to continue the dialogue without the mice’s actual presence 64 fps was born.



Sources: Conversation with Michael Oliveri, October 4, 2012; Michael Oliveri websiteYouTube clip.

(Image: 64 fps, 2000, courtesy of Michael Oliveri, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

“Home and Dry”

There’s a mouse in the Underground. Yes, I know, Dostoyevsky might say. But this small creature isn’t a metaphor for an angst-ridden character; he’s a real mouse and not a man. Although I can’t help wonder if his existence, living in the filth of the tracks, is any less marginalized, is any kinder. A mouse after all likes to keep clean. Nevertheless he and his brothers appear to be well fed, thanks to the slobs who, it seems, find it easier to toss their leftover English muffins and candy bar wrappers into the iron gully than into a trash bin. The mice scurry to and fro, over and under the rails, among the litter. And in the background you can hear the dull rumble of a train, and the Pet Shop Boys singing. This is Wolfgang Tillmans’s video for the band’s single “Home and Dry” that he made in 2001.

The year before, the contemporary German artist Tillmans—known for the deeply personal style he brought to his images and for taping his pictures frameless to the walls of museums and galleries—was the first photographer and the first non-Brit to win the prestigious Turner Prize, which catapulted him to art-world fame. Living in London and New York in the nineties he had already made a name for himself documenting, as one critic succinctly put it: “London’s street culture, the rise of Gay Pride, the nightlife of the clubbing generation.”[1] So it was surely a meeting of like-minded artists when the synth-pop duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe came along and tapped the artist to make the video for the lead song of their new album Release.

Tillmans shot the video—another first for him—with a camcorder, stationing himself in London’s tube station at Tottenham Court Road, watching the mice. Completely antithetical to the music industry’s standard of flashy, big budgeted productions, the video caught a lot of flak. Quickly re-edited with a commercial eye, the footage now contained a few seconds of Tennant and Lowe performing. But the music industry wasn’t shy about letting the Pet Shop Boys know that they still weren’t keen about the mice; they basically said the band had shot themselves in the foot, that “Home and Dry” would have received more play if the video hadn’t been “unshowable”; even their fans thought it was “strange.” Later when asked to explain the video, Tennant said, “It doesn’t need explaining. It is what it is.”[2] And Lowe said, “We just wanted to make a video that was completely different—dead simple, it’s art.”[3]

As for Tillmans, he noted, “The phenomenon of the metro mouse is fascinating to me… Most passengers are either too tired or absorbed to notice the endearing spectacle that takes place right under their eyes.”[4]


[1] Laura Cumming, “Wolfgang Tillmans,” The [London] Observer, June 26, 2010.

[2] Interviews-Attitudes, “Literally,” Absolutely Pet Shop Boys, May 2002.

[3] “Tillmans makes promo debut,” Creative Review, February 1, 2002.

[4] Ibid.

Additional sources: Wolfgang Tillmans website; Martin Herbert, “Wolfgang Tillmans: Tate Britain,” Artforum, October 2003; Pet Shop Boys website; Lynsey Hanley and Olivia Shean, “Daydream Believers,” New Statesman, October 30, 2006

(Image: Still from the video, directed by Wolfgang Tillmans, 2001, released March 2002, for non-commercial use only.)

Big Brother

The video camera pans the pristine interior of an apartment, moving left to right, from a sparsely furnished bedroom to the living room, well-appointed with striped wallpaper and a floor to ceiling window, and then to the eat-in kitchen, humble in appearance. The camera stops and focuses on the kitchen door. After a bit, the door creaks open; we surreptitiously watch the first houseguest to arrive. He peeks his head in. He enters and reaches up to turn on the light, and wanders around the windowless kitchen, examines the table that’s been set for two, looks under the sink as if to check for a leak. He continues through the other rooms, apparently finding them oppressive. Only two and half minutes into the filming, he’s already climbing the walls. The doorbell rings heralding the entrance of another guest. And then another, and another. One of the guests is clearly a bully, a little dictator. He goes after the latest guest, chases him round and round, making him jump, making him holler. Perhaps they’re related; they look alike. Nighttime seems to make all the guests more restive. The two are wrestling again; they knock over a large potted plant and several pieces of furniture. Day follows night, night follows day, in rapid succession. The houseguests now barely pay attention to one another; they’re too busy tearing the place apart. We can hear thunder, the sound of rain pouring, and then the distant roar of a rushing engine. The apartment is dark save for one lamplight; it’s in an apocalyptic state.

This, however, isn’t some bad reality show. The characters on the screen are not contestants looking to win money but are four male mice staking out their territory, looking for food. At closer inspection, we suddenly realize the tabletop and the sofa are made out of toast, the chairs and the shelves are crackers and waffles, the desk is a chocolate-covered wafer, and the rug in the bedroom is a thin slice of bread. In fact the entire apartment seems to be edible, including the walls. The apartment is cleverly miniature in size; we’re told it was designed after an actual apartment, and according to scale 1:10—a palace for mice.

Mouse Palace is a short film, ten minutes and twenty seconds long,[1] from the Austrian video artists/filmmakers Harald Hund and Paul Horn. It is the latest work in their series they call “Living Space,” in which they joyfully explore human existence by ironically “reducing our ideas of space.” [2]


[1] Image: Still from Mouse Palace (2010). To view the film:

[2] Genoveva Rücker, Curator, OK (Offenes Kulturhaus) Centre for Contemporary Art, Linz, Austria.

Other sources: “Mouse Palace,” Kleine Zeitung, September 10, 2010; Knoll Galerie Wien.

While the Cat’s Away

Long before YouTube, I remember watching a video on television on one of those animal programs that show us how clever animals can be. A camcorder had been set up in a kitchen, its lens pointed toward a countertop on which was placed a cookie jar. Nothing happened for more than a couple of minutes. And right at the moment when boredom began to creep in, and I reached for the remote, a small mouse scurried into view. I watched in awe as he sped up the side of the clear glass jar, knocked off the lid, and dragged out a cookie four times his size. The clip wasn’t about art of course. After all who would have thought the idea of running surveillance on a mouse could be the makings for great art? Bruce Nauman I guess.

In the summer of 2000 Nauman—one of the leading and most innovative contemporary American artists—with the help of infrared light, filmed his workspace in the dark. Over forty-two nights and just as many hours, he taped the room from different angles, looking to capture the movements of his cat and the field mice who had previously moved in. The end result was Nauman’s video installation Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage). Consisting of seven real-time green-gray monochrome images projected onto wall-sized screens, the installation is accompanied by ‘multiple audio tracks’ of ambient sounds—a distant train whistle and a coyote howl, thunder and wind, insects buzzing and a horse quietly snorting nearby—giving away the studio’s rustic setting. The viewer waits for something to occur but is greeted instead by hours and hours of motionless debris of creativity: cast heads and taxidermied forms for example, among a haphazard collection of chairs. But that’s entirely the point. Eventually Nauman’s cat patters in, then patters out. Meanwhile the field mice hurry across the floor. Nauman says he “used this traffic as a way of mapping the leftover parts and work areas of the last several years of other completed, unfinished, or discarded projects.”


Sources: Jerry Saltz, “Wild Kingdom, Bruce Nauman,” Seeing Out Loud: The Village Voice Art Columns, Fall 1998 – Winter 2003; Michael Kimmelman, “Art in Review: Bruce Nauman — ‘Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)’,” New York Times, July 05, 2002; Kate Mondloch, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art, 2010; Dia Art Foundation.