In February, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts opened its new video room with a retrospective of short works by electronic-media artist Andres Tapia-Urzua.
Video Retrospective, 1990-2009 is presented as a 50-minute loop, so that works crafted individually come to feel like one solid stream of footage. Outside the video room, three monitors each loop an enticing recent piece, "Mission A: Motorcycle, Ski, Jet & Boat" (2006). "Mission A" depicts extreme-sports accidents alongside a mouth chanting "mission accomplished." The displays loop out of sync, so that viewers watch the video's beginning, middle and end at once.
Exhibited as such, in ways that might blur the lines between one video and the next, Retrospective offers viewers a choppy (but not necessarily unpleasant) ride in the disorienting seas of the artist's making.
On a technical level, Tapia-Urzua -- who heads the Art Institute of Pittsburgh's digital-media program -- takes a nostalgic detour to an era of video effects and transitions that have bitten the dust since the 1990s. Delighting in the constraints and possibilities of his medium, Tapia-Urzua finds an appropriate venue at the PCA, which tends to indulge experimentation.
It is interesting to see Tapia-Urzua's work progress through various editing tools and techniques, and a refreshing narrative clarity blooms in his more recent works. Tapia-Urzua speaks of vertical narrative -- the kind that might build on a writing tablet as previous writings are imperfectly erased, then written over. Imagine Tapia-Urzua's work as a collage that grows as he adds new pieces, with some pieces nearly transparent, revealing images beneath.
Those who can picture this will enjoy the Jungian symbolism that surfaces in Tapia-Urzua's dreamlike settings and characters. Those who can't might feel as though they've experienced a dream that, despite iconic moments, suggests an empty-the-fridge soup of the subconscious.
What's easier to grasp is that rebellion and rejection of the status quo guide Tapia-Urzua's work, even if it isn't always clear exactly who is being rebelled against, or what the status quo entails. The lives of Tapia-Urzua's characters are fueled by struggle, and might skitter to a halt without it.
Tapia-Urzua grew up in Chile, and in a recent gallery talk proclaimed that, politically speaking, "the U.S. does not know a left, does not have a left, but may one day have a left." Someone clapped and a few people said "yeah." But as an artist and educator, Tapia-Urzua is challenged with translating his work for an audience largely unaware of his political and social influences.
His comment recalled a scene from one of his more striking videos. In "UP," the protagonist stumbles through the dark, hops a fence -- police lights flashing on the other side -- runs like hell, and is caught in an explosion of lights we realize are fireworks. "USA" flashes in a deadpan Courier font in the background, and the next thing you know, our main character is a gold-skinned rock star, singing and swaying before a band. For a second, my heart takes a little leap -- but really, I am not sure whether the character is victorious, or simply reveling in the kind of self-indulgent martyrdom that distracts revolutionaries from their stated causes.
For Tapia-Urzua, the world knows few neutral players, and the narratives are complicated. Yet archetypes and gender roles emerge: Characters are saviors, prosecutors or victims. The men are disenchanted super-heroes, illegal immigrants, political and social refugees, cops, and floating omniscient heads chanting "Money" and "Murder." The women are hypnotized in bubble baths, seductively smoking cigarettes, and reciting poetry in swimming pools.
Tapia-Urzua's strength may lie in channeling the tired compositions of popular cinema into something that feels personal, international and endlessly repeated by humanity. This would suggest that these exhausted plotlines recur simply because they are a scenario society sets up again and again. Whether Tapia-Urzua's framing of this struggle calls witnesses to action, or simply reminds us of society's woes, is up to viewers to decide.
Video Retrospective, 1990-2009 continues through April 19. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. 412-361-0873