Appellate Judge James A. Stewart would like Art 24/7, but Art 21/6 ain't bad.
"Sometimes I feel like there's brains in my hands."—David Altmejd
Viewers of Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 6 will see David Altmejd with an ear in his hands (actually a plaster cast of his own ear). However, what he's referring to is the way that the product of his mind comes out in his art. Art:21 is meant not just to show art, but to show the minds behind the art.
This Art:21 collection from PBS features four episodes on a single disc:
• "Change"—Photographer Catherine Opie returns to Sandusky, Ohio, to shoot Lake Erie; Ghanian artist El Anatsui brings new life to found objects, such as bottle caps or broken pottery, through art; Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's art is displayed in New York and London, even as his government keeps him in custody.
• "Boundaries"—Sculptor David Altmejd works with plaster body parts; Tabaimo creates music and video for a Japanese pavilion in Venice; assume vivid astro focus discusses transgender masks as part of a disco re-creation at a Los Angeles museum; installation artist Linda Benglis shows installations past and present.
• "History"—Glenn Ligon turns text from writers including Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Pryor into art; video artist Mary Reid Kelley gets her family involved in a project; artist Marina Abramovic speaks on solitude, life in the former Yugoslavia, and her funeral plans.
• "Balance"—Rackstraw Downes shows paintings of a power plant and a racetrack; Robert Mangold demonstrates how he creates the right shapes for his paintings; Sarah Sze creates a sculpture meant to attract birds on New York's Highline.
Art:21 does what it sets out to do: introduce artists and their work, with an emphasis on the personalities. With three or four profiles in an hourlong episode, it gives most viewers just enough information and moves on, although you'll probably want to Google the artists that intrigue you the most.
While the profiles in this set are intriguing, one stands out both for its dramatic story and for its storytelling. Ai Weiwei's profile starts out without him. A speech by New York Michael Mayor Bloomberg and comments from his assistants and others involved with exhibitions look like they're going to carry the segment. But wait, there's more: Art:21 got an interview with Weiwei, but his government won't let him talk about anything but his art. The interview doesn't try to go around the restriction in any way, but it leaves you with an understanding of his desire to create without restriction or pressure. However, Art:21 wraps up the segment with a parting shot: posters of Weiwei's quotes, on display in London, reveal the sentiments he couldn't share in the interview. The most impressive part is that it doesn't seem like a hard-hitting testimony while you're watching; its impact hit me just as the segment ended and the credits started to roll.
Of course, the show's artistry does get in the way once in a while. The interview with Marina Abramovic is interesting, but the static images are kind of tedious. You might prefer closing your eyes and imagining it's a radio show.
Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 6 doesn't give us any extras, although we can go right to our favorite segments. Background on the artists or still photos of their works would have been nice. You will find these things on the PBS site, so it's kind of puzzling that they didn't get included on the disc.
The lack of extras probably argues against purchase for the average viewer, although viewers interested in art should check out the series on TV or online. For libraries, which I suspect are the main market for the disc, the powerful segment on Ai Weiwei would make it a worthwhile addition to the DVD collection.
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