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Video Art

Started: 1965

Video Art Timeline

Important Art and Artists of Video Art

The below artworks are the most important in Video Art - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Video Art. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Sun In Your Head - Television Décollage (1963)
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Sun In Your Head - Television Décollage (1963)

Artist: Wolf Vostell

Artwork description & Analysis: For Sun In Your Head - Television Décollage, German artist Wolf Vostell distorted and played with various single frames that he'd sourced from film and television of the time (such as a smiling woman; words such as "Silence Please! Genius At Work!" or an embracing couple, for example). The resulting piece is a fast-paced, flickering mish-mash of televisual images that veer from flashing, abstracted shapes to recognizable forms. The work was shown as part of Vostell's nine-part 'happening' - 9 Decollagen - which took place in Wuppertal, Germany in 1963. As no video playback technology was available at the time, Vostell recorded the images from a television set using a film camera, allowing him to edit the piece and play it back on a projector.

With its highly experimental technique and subversive form, Sun In Your Head was one of the first works to examine the possibilities of television as a medium in its own right. It employs his innovative use of the decollage technique, first associated with the French Nouveau Realisme movement who used the term to describe their ripping, erasing, and reworking of Parisian posters to create new information. Vostell used it to refer to the re-mixing and layering of image and sound he employed to create a new artistic language in his Video art. A pioneer of the European branches of the Fluxus and Happening movements, Vostell is considered one of the most influential early Video artists - he was also the first to use a television as an object in an artwork in 1958.

16mm film transferred to video - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sleep (1963)
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Sleep (1963)

Artist: Andy Warhol

Artwork description & Analysis: In Sleep, Andy Warhol filmed his close friend and occasional lover John Giorno sleeping for five hours and twenty minutes. The piece's length means few people have watched it from beginning to end (two of the nine people who attended its premiere at The Gramercy Theater in New York left during its opening hour), and it is considered one of the first and most important works of durational art. Sleep looks at themes of intimacy, repetition, and duration, and is one of the first examples of what Warhol called his 'anti-films', in which he used hugely long, single takes to record his everyday experience and that of his friends. Although Sleep is a film rather than a video, Warhol's use of the camera, in which he just switched it on and walked away, make it stylistically much closer to art then film since he is clearly looking to bash Hollywood's conventions of narrative and the strategic manipulation of real time through editing.

The artist's use of such epic duration has been exceptionally influential, inspiring many contemporary film and video artists working today. Sam Taylor-Wood's hour-long film of David Beckham sleeping in 2004 directly referenced Warhol's piece. Christian Marclay's 24 hour-long epic Clock and Douglas Gordon's slowed version of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, 24 Hour Psycho, were also made in the same tradition.

Black and white film - Museum of Modern Art, New York

TV Cello (1964)
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TV Cello (1964)

Artist: Nam June Paik

Artwork description & Analysis: Fluxus artist Nam June Pak was one of the first artists to break the barriers between art and technology. TV Cello is a seminal example, specifically created for use in performance by the avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman. The work consisted of three television sets piled on top of each other, all showing different moving images - a film of Moorman performing live, a collaged video of other cellists and an intercepted broadcast feed. Ingeniously, the whole sculpture was also a fully operational cello, designed to be played with a bow to create a series of raw, electronic notes that reverberated through the space.

By appropriating the domestic television set as an art object in this way, Paik became one of the first artists to establish video as a serious artistic medium. By taking the television out of its normal setting and using it in such subversive performances, he wanted to question its increasingly dominant role in shaping public opinion.

Video tubes, TV Chassis, Electronics, Wiring - Walker Art Center, Minnesota

Art Make-Up (1967-8)
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Art Make-Up (1967-8)

Artist: Bruce Nauman

Artwork description & Analysis: Art Make-Up consists of a series of four films set in Nauman's studio in which the artist slowly and ritualistically applies individual layers of color - white in the first, then pink, green and finally black - to his naked torso. The title refers simultaneously to the substance the artist is using, to the idea that he is "making himself up" for the viewer, and to the question "What is an artist made of?". Nauman was exploring the boundaries between disguise, masquerade, and reality by presenting these four versions of himself, none of which can be said to be the 'real' Bruce Nauman. Each ten-minute section was originally intended to show on four separate screens on the walls of one square room, with the viewer never witnessing the artist without a colored mask.

Bruce Nauman was one of the first video artists to work with the single take, fixed-camera technique that's demonstrated in Art Make-Up - a method in which the scene is shot from one perspective in one sitting. This created a sense of authenticity to the work, which, in its refusal of editing or fluctuating shots, allowed for a denial of the normal cinematic fluff-and-preen convention, an important distinction to many of these artists. These artists looked to the new medium to document and extend ideas around live performance - an approach that would influence generations of artists, including the so-called 'father of Chinese Video art' Zhang Peili and contemporary US conceptual artist Martine Syms. Along with his groundbreaking use of video to push the possibilities of art making to new limits, the work is also a prime example of Nauman's use of his own body as a tool for artistic exploration.

16mm film - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Facing A Family (1971)
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Facing A Family (1971)

Artist: Valie Export

Artwork description & Analysis: In Facing A Family, Austrian feminist performance artist Valie Export filmed a family watching the camera as if it was a television set in their living room. Labeled a 'TV action' by the artist, the footage lasts for almost five minutes, during which time the viewer becomes more aware of the piece's mirror-like quality and the passing of time - it is as if the viewer and the family are gazing at each other.

The work was originally broadcast on Austrian television in 1971, ironically viewed by a large portion of the country's TV-consuming families. Export wanted viewers to reflect on the passive role they took on while being entertained, and to think about how we construe the contents of our television screen (fantasy versus reality). It was considered especially pioneering at the time, produced just as TV was becoming ever more dominant in lives of the public and concerns were being voiced about its increasing power.

Black and White Film - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Vertical Roll (1972)
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Vertical Roll (1972)

Artist: Joan Jonas

Artwork description & Analysis: Named after a type of television malfunction, Vertical Roll is a disrupted recording of Joan Jonas rehearsing for a performance in her studio as her masked alter ego, Organic Honey. As the image on the screen constantly rolls to a steady rhythm (which Jonas/Honey taps out, first with a spoon then a length of wood), we see various parts of the performer's body - her masked face; her wheeling legs; her rotating, corset-clad torso; and a shadow of her hand holding the spoon. All are shot from a dizzying variety of angles, abstracting many of the body parts so they appear strange and unfamiliar. Jonas also plays with and moves around the video's frame throughout the piece, highlighting the difference between her live activity and its videoed portrayal.

Vertical Roll is a prime example of Jonas's seminal video works of the 1970s that theatrically explored ideas of female identity. She often used her alter ego to investigate notions of masquerade and femininity, producing an elusive and disjointed self-portrait using what was, in the 1970s, a new and cutting-edge medium. She is considered a key figure in the history of both Performance and Video art, and has been enormously influential on many contemporary artists who use their bodies in performance to explore what it is to be female today, including Video artists Sarah Lasley and Amber Hawk Swanson.

Black and White Film - Video Data Bank

Teaching A Plant The Alphabet (1972)
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Teaching A Plant The Alphabet (1972)

Artist: John Baldessari

Artwork description & Analysis: Conceptual art pioneer John Baldessari made Teaching A Plant The Alphabet in direct response to Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys's innovative 1965 performance How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare. Described by Baldessari as "a perverse exercise in futility", the Portapak video consists of the artist's hand showing educational flashcards of the alphabet to a clearly unresponsive potted plant, repeating each letter slowly and deliberately, as if tutoring a small child. Like much of his work, the piece is full of irony and subtle humor, using everyday objects and a seemingly mundane task to explore broader philosophical concerns. In this case, those concerns are structuralist theories of the 1970s that presented language as a series of signs. Baldessari was also influenced by books published by members of the hippie movement, which encouraged people to communicate with their plants.

Teaching A Plant The Alphabet is one of the best-known examples of Baldessari's artistic exploration of ideas around language, dealt with using his characteristic sense of humor and offering a fresh, original perspective on what he called the 'pedantic' and uncompromisingly serious conceptual art of the day. The use of video allowed him to further his already quite established conceptual agenda by utilizing a brave new form to expand his ideas from a static space to a live one.

Black and White Film - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975)
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Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975)

Artist: Martha Rosler

Artwork description & Analysis: In Semiotics of the Kitchen the artist walks into a kitchen, dons an apron, and proceeds to vocally identify kitchen objects in alphabetical order: a for apron, b for bowl, c for chopper, d for dish, etc. As she goes down the roster, she quickly demonstrates each object's use. For the last few letters u through z she simply makes the shape of the letter with broad sweeping gestures of her arms while holding a utensil in each hand. There is a violent force in the manner in which Rosler presents many of the objects, such as slamming down the meat tenderizer or jabbing violently with the ice pick, which contradicts society's image of the happy homemaker in a decidedly passive-aggressive fashion.

This work is an important example of how early Feminist artists co-opted the video medium to establish themselves as important new voices disembodied from the male art canon and its many years of more traditional artwork.

Video - Collection of Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

The Reflecting Pool (1977 - 9)
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The Reflecting Pool (1977 - 9)

Artist: Bill Viola

Artwork description & Analysis: The first in a series of tapes with the same name, The Reflecting Pool shows a man (Viola) approaching an artificial pool in the middle of a dense forest. As we hear trees rustling, water flowing and an airplane flying overhead, the man leaps into the air as if to jump into the pool, then remains frozen in mid-air, his image gradually fading into the foliage behind him. Eventually, he emerges from the pool as if reborn - Viola has said that he was portraying "the emergence of the individual into the natural world, a kind of baptism." He also used a simple masking effect to split the frame so that the human action above the water wasn't always reflected in it, turning the pool into a metaphor for the mystic and separating its strange world from the real one in the other half of the screen, while ensuring they remained united by the televisual frame.

This work marks the beginning of Viola's innovative use of special effects to explore notions of transcendence and spirituality. He wanted to use a medium that had previously been regarded as embodying the literal to explore invisible phenomena and examine the gap between the seen and the unseen. In subject as well as technique, Viola is seen as one of the most important artists working in video from the 1970s to the present day. His works have proved hugely influential on other, younger artists working in epic and immersive film and video such as Cremaster Cycle creator Matthew Barney, and Swiss video installation artist Pipilotti Rist.

Color video - Art Institute of Chicago

Why Do Things Get In A Muddle (Come On Petunia) (1984)
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Why Do Things Get In A Muddle (Come On Petunia) (1984)

Artist: Gary Hill

Artwork description & Analysis: In Why Do Things Get In A Muddle, Gary Hill constructs his own, twisted version of the classic literary nonsense story Alice In Wonderland. Hill had become fascinated with the concept of entropy - a term that refers to gradual descent into disorder - and wanted to explore it using video and sound. Most of the piece was performed and recorded backwards, including the exchange between the two characters (a childish woman called Cathy and her father), before being reversed again in the editing process. Their resulting confusing conversation about confusion itself was inspired by theoretician Gregory Bateson's definition of a 'metalogue', as quoted in the work's opening sequence: "When a conversation between people mirrors the problems themselves."

At thirty minutes long, this was the first video piece for which Hill wrote a full screenplay. Why Do Things Get In A Muddle was considered groundbreaking in its open, experimental approach to movement, sound and words, as well as the artist's inventive use of editing techniques to make a conceptual point. Contemporary artists who stretch the medium in similarly innovative ways include British artist Ed Atkins, who uses moving image, bodies and text in his subversive video installations. The work of US multimedia artist Adam Pendleton engages with language and meaning in ways that also owe a clear debt to Hill.

Color film - Museum of Modern Art, New York



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Related Art and Artists

Cut Piece (1964)
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Cut Piece (1964)

Artist: Yoko Ono

Artwork description & Analysis: A landmark work, and one of the artist's best-known, Cut Piece was presented at the Sogetsu Art Center, the same Tokyo venue that had hosted her Bag Piece. Ono wore one of her best suits and knelt on the stage holding a pair of scissors. She invited audience members to cut pieces of her clothing off using the scissors. The artist remained still and silent until she was down to only her underwear. The process of witnessing clothes cut from the body elicited a range of responses from the audience. Themes of materialism, gender, class, and cultural identity were central to the work.

According to Ono, her original intention was to harness the Buddhist mentality (Buddha, born a wealthy prince, achieved enlightenment by giving up everything and sitting under a tree for seven years), with a feminist subtext: women too often need to give up everything. This performance was a demonstration of that reality. Ono's Cut Piece was the first performance piece to address the potential for sexual violence in public spectacle. It is also among the first examples of Performance Art.

Body, Clothes, and Scissors (Performance piece)

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)
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How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)

Artist: Joseph Beuys

Artwork description & Analysis: In this performance piece, Beuys could be viewed - his head and face covered in honey and gold leaf - through a gallery's windows, a slab of iron tied to one boot, a felt pad to the other, as the artist cradled a dead hare. As though carrying out a strange music (if not some macabre bedtime story), Beuys frequently whispered things to the animal carcass about his own drawings hanging on the walls around him. Beuys would periodically vary the bleak rhythm of this scenario by walking around the cramped space, one footstep muffled by the felt, the other amplified by the iron. Every item in the room - a wilting fir tree, the honey, the felt, and the fifty-dollars-worth of gold leaf - was chosen specifically for both its symbolic potential as well as its literal significance: honey for life, gold for wealth, hare as death, metal as conductor of invisible energies, felt as protection, and so forth. As for most of his subsequent installations and performance work, Beuys had created a new visual syntax not only for himself, but for all conceptual art that might follow him.

Gold leaf, honey, dead hare, felt pad, iron, fir tree, miscellaneous drawings and clothing items - Galerie Schmela, Dresden, Germany

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
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Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Artist: Luis Buñuel

Artwork description & Analysis: This silent short film, inspired by the dreams of Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, fulfills the Surrealist goal of achieving the pure automatism of the dream state, liberated from the constraints of reason, logic, traditional narrative, and temporal unity.

Un Chien Andalou shocks at multiple levels, showing acts of irrational physical violence, raw sexual desire, rotting animal carcasses, insects, and a complete violation of the fundamental rules of logical plot. In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had written that a work of literature or drama must consist of actions that arise logically out of each other, as well as preserve a unity of time and place. These rules of plot structure had dominated Western literature and theatre for centuries. But from the beginning, as they worked on their script at Dalí's home in Cadaques, Buñuel and Dalí agreed that nothing about the film could have a rational explanation. The resulting film has no narrative or linear logic. Skipping arbitrarily through time, "eight years later" and "sixteen years earlier," the film mocks and subverts the "title cards" that were used in silent movies to fill in temporal and narrative breaks.

There is no core narrative, although, if there is a constant at all in the film, it is an agonizing sense of sexual desire and sexual failure. Several of the film's images are among the most disturbing ever produced in the history of cinema: a razor slicing through a passive woman's eyeball, ants crawling out of an open wound on a hand, a woman's armpit hair turning into a man's beard, and many more. In the final scene, the romantic image of a happy couple cuts to an image of the same man and woman buried in the sand, the positions of their bodies or inclined heads reminiscent of Jean-François Millet's famous painting of 1859, The Angelus.

Both Buñuel and Dalí dismissed any attempts at analysis or rational meaning. Dalí wrote that the film "consists of a simple notation of facts... enigmatic, incoherent, irrational, absurd, inexplicable." In anticipation of a riot at the premiere in Paris, Buñuel filled his pocket with rocks to hurl at protesters - he later expressed his disappointment that a film aimed at offending the bourgeoisie was actually applauded by it.

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