The night before venturing into the virtual marvels of Steina Vasulka's video exhibition in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, I took a short trip to explore the natural marvels of Niagara Falls.
The act of peering into the rapids -- of trying to perceive the force of the water and later watching its soundless journey across smooth rock before its violent cascade into the gorge below -- is a periodic reminder for many of just where we stand in the scheme of things.
It proved to be the perfect warm-up for the show, "Involving People Into This Magic: Steina, 1970-2000," in which the artist declares her own awe at nature and then tries to beat it at its own game.
In an interview before the show opened, Vasulka, one of first artists to adopt video as a medium and an important figure in Buffalo's storied art history, declared that she was "in a competition with Mr. God."
Nowhere is that competition more clear than in the exhibition's centerpiece, a six-channel video projection titled "Mynd," commissioned in 2000 by the National Gallery of Iceland. Of the seven works in the show, this is by far the strongest, most sophisticated and unified as a composition and certainly its most entrancing.
Vasulka, who was born and raised in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, returned to her home country to produce this piece, which contains orchestrated images of vapor rising from ancient springs, ponies moving like slow specters across open fields and waves crashing in reverse away from rocky shorelines. In Vasulka's competition, using the deus ex machina of video, she reverses and manipulates time and gravity to her own ends. (See John Pfahl's "Altered Landscapes" series for a similar approach in still photography.)
In "Mynd," those ends have an obvious musical sensibility, owing to Vasulka's training in classical performance and composition. There's an alluring rhythm and poetry to the flow of images across the six huge projections, which seem attuned to the desires of the audience for a certain degree of order as well as to the artist's somewhat loftier ends.
Most of us are not accustomed to seeing a multichannel video and perceiving it as we might a symphony. With "Mynd," that's precisely what Vasulka asks us to do. And unlike her worthy but occasionally tedious attempt to do that in the adjacent "Tokyo Four," a four-channel piece from 1991, the show's centerpiece makes it utterly simple for viewers to take that leap from sound to sight.
Other pieces, from the 14-channel piece "The West" and the entrancing 1994 three-channel "Pyroglyphs" only grapple toward the success of "Mynd," showing an artist's increasingly interesting series of warm-ups on the way to her grand opus. "Borealis," a four-channel piece of rushing water projected onto four separate screens, made in 1993, is also glorious on its own.
The question for the viewer is, of course, who wins in Steina's celestial competition. For some, it's "Mr. God" in the first round, with one knockout punch. For others, more attuned to the power of the artist to manipulate the spectacles of natural world into something even more sublime, Vasulka puts up a pretty good fight.
And whoever you think comes out on top, the bout is well worth watching.
> ART REVIEW
"Involving People Into This Magic: Steina, 1970-2000"
Through Sept. 25 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave. For more information, call 878-6011 or visit www.burchfieldpenney.org