German art historian Matthias Muhling on video art and its evolution over the years

“What is video art?” It might seem a pretty basic question to ask about an art form that has been around for 40 years or more, but German art historian Matthias Mühling feels the question is relevant. “Simply put, it is art based on the medium of film, that is, moving pictures,” says the director of collection and curator for international contemporary art at the Galerie im Lenbachhaus and the Kunstbau in Munich.

Mühling was in town to conduct a seminar on video art in connection with the ongoing exhibition, a compilation of 59 video artworks produced in Germany between 1963 and 2004 by famed exponents of the medium, such as Rebecca Horn, Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramovic/Ulay.

However, some of the featured artistes, such as Robert Wilson, obviously aren’t German. Muhling explains: “Artists are nomads, and can’t be tied to a single country. The criteria for choosing works was that they must have been produced in Germany, and ideally have had some impact on the art world there. It’s a selection that shows how Germany, in the late 20th Century and early 21st Century, was the centre for making video art.”

An engaging mix

Muhling is voluble on the subject of video art, and presents it with an engaging mix of scholarliness and humour. “What is video art?” is a query with merit, he explains, precisely because the definition has changed considerably over the years. Today, the term is generic, referring to a form of art making — such as oil painting or sculpture — that occupies a space between the digital world of media art and fine art. We now think of video as a compact, democratic art form that can theoretically be made by almost anyone who owns a videocam and computer.

However, Muhling says that “the earliest camera used to make a work of video art was the — then very expensive — Portapac8000, about as compact as Marlene Dietrich’s luggage when travelling overseas. In those early days, video artworks were made by artists who had no background in film, and there was no editing involved”.

As for content, says Muhling, “the exhibition shows that video art can be about anything, though it is more to do with politics than entertainment. Really complex political ideas can be dealt with in video art — as opposed to, say, in a painting — which makes the documentary genre very important to video art.”

Oddly enough, the show is almost a by-product of a project that looked to preserve a certain aspect of Germany’s cultural heritage — namely, the long neglected conservation of video artworks. “All conservators in Germany knew how to preserve oil paintings but not video art, and especially, those early examples on video cassettes that were deteriorating.” Five of Germany’s most well-known museums including the Lenbachhaus came together in the project now called 40 Since its first showing in Germany in May 2006, the exhibition has been presented in many countries by the Goethe-Institut. Muhling himself was “trained as a conservative art historian in Bochum and Münster, in a super-conservative system that had no interest in such ‘new’ ideas as Deconstruction or Postcolonial studies. But those times were also the peak of the wave of Deconstruction — so outside of the university, we were riding the wave, reading Foucault and Derrrida!”

Distinguished career

It has since been a distinguished career — that includes being a visiting fellow at the New York University (2001) and assistant lecturer at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg (2003-2005). Currently, he is enjoying his work at the Lenbachhaus, famous for its world heritage collection of works by the Blue Rider Group, valued at 9.5 billion euros. Personally, “I am interested in the impact of art in the society that we are living in.” As he writes in a catalogue essay for the show, our media reality is one “that is visible only when we have images of it, while everything else remains hidden and invisible, and those who have no images cannot hope to attract attention”. - Video Art in Germany from 1963 to the Present, is on at Lalit Kala Akademi, Greams Road, till September 27.