Video art seems to intimidate us. It shouldn't. The medium is about 40 years old now so it's hardly new, but little real education has been done to make it accessible to the average viewer, who is probably more comfortable and conversant with static art such as paintings and sculpture. • "Jesper Just: Romantic Delusions" at the Tampa Museum of Art can serve as a wonderful introduction to video art for those not familiar with it and a gratifying experience for those who are.
That said, the four works aren't easy. The subject matter might discomfit many with its scenarios that often suggest homosexual encounters or transgender issues. But suggest is all they do; there's nothing explicit. Women, or men and women, could easily be substituted for the male characters and, though the videos would become completely different in their impact, the main points they make would be the same.
They all speak to our yearning to connect with one another emotionally, our desire to be known fully by another, that conflict with our reticence and fear of rejection.
Leave behind the usual conventions of a museum visit, which assume you will walk from one artwork to the next. Approach these as you would a movie. They only run from four to 10 minutes but have the same plot twists and surprises as a feature film. Just crafts his videos in subtle homages to classic movies using lush cinematic techniques and sound tracks. Songs stand in for dialogue. They're beautiful visually, and though you may be disturbed at times, you won't be able to look away.
No Man Is an Island is the earliest video made when Just (pronounced "Yoost"; he's Danish) was a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. It's an impressive debut with his later trademarks in nascent form. An older man begins dancing in a public square, oblivious to the laughing gawkers who pass by. He seems to want to engage the attention of a young man sitting on a bench who begins weeping.
A group of youngsters mimics and mocks the dancer. He's oblivious to them. The music is a sprightly tune that Fred Astaire might have used as he enticed Ginger Rogers into his arms. And didn't he do a lot of dancing in the streets in his movies? Nobody laughed at him. But, of course, he was only on a pretend street in a Hollywood soundstage. We know this is also a setup. Still, it's embarrassing. They're making public displays of themselves. The man, expressionless, continues to dance. The other man continues to weep. One kid starts taking the performance seriously and joins in the dance as a sort of pas de deux. Both men ignore him. And then it's over. We don't know why it began or ended. Courting ritual or celebration of self, it's unclear.
In The Lonely Villa (2004), the telephone is the literal instrument that connects and then disconnects one man from another. The camera pans around an elegantly appointed club room in which older men sit at tables, each with a telephone. They look like they're waiting. One phone rings, a man picks up the receiver (note that these are the old rotary types) and the video cuts to a closeup in which a younger man begins singing I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire (I Just Want to Start a Flame in Your Heart), a plaintive love song first recorded by the Ink Spots in the 1940s. The older man listens wistfully. Then he and the other men in the room begin singing Address Unknown, another Ink Spots number, in sad chorus. No one looks at anyone else. As the work ends, one table is empty and the phone is off the hook. It's an intense and mysterious little slice of life, heightened by the saturated colors and intimate camera angles Just uses. The intimacy it evokes is poignant rather than erotic.
A sense of yearning is more fleshed out in Bliss and Heaven (2004), in which a young man watches from a field of golden grain as a semitrailer pulls off the highway. Its macho driver emerges, looks in the younger man's direction and walks to the back of the trailer, opening its door and going inside. The young man follows him. It's claustrophobic and a little menacing (think Alfred Hitchcock). Then, magically, the young man finds himself in a gorgeous old theater. He takes a seat. The curtain rises and the truck driver, still in jeans and T-shirt, wears a blond wig and a long chiffon scarf.
He belts out Please Don't Keep Me Waiting, a hit song by Olivia Newton-John about lost love, in a deep baritone. It approaches camp. You will be tempted to giggle. But continue watching and you begin to feel compassion for this guy who sings to the young man, who's listening raptly but not responding to the entreaties from the stage. At song's end, the singer collapses in anguish as the curtain falls. The audience of one stands and claps, clearly moved.
Just has said, "If you want to make a piece that is going to touch people, I think it's important that you approach the 'emotional' so that it's based on intuition and 'female qualities' in the way you make it. . . . I think the themes I am working with are about men showing their emotions in the public sphere toward each other without having it be a balance between male and female."
So these men do their yearning and grieving in private — an empty theater, a club room — and "coming out" here does not necessarily mean an admission of sexual preference but perhaps a more general willingness to embrace without embarrassment qualities we usually associate with women, such as vulnerability.
The man in Romantic Delusions, the newest and most ambitious video here, is also dressed in T-shirt and jeans. We meet him as he rides a trolley, which the camera tracks as it wends its way through an old European city (in Romania, incidentally). Just uses three screens that show the same scene from different angles. The center screen is toned to give everything a yellow wash. The man steps off the bus onto a busy street corner and labors to remove his track jacket, becoming emotional as he tugs at the sleeves. We see he's wearing a bra beneath the T-shirt. He seems to wear a little makeup, too.
As he stand on the city sidewalk, the scene suddenly shifts and he now stands on the balcony of a grand old building staring at a lovely seascape. In the next frame he's inside the building, as are, in the other frames, many tourists. The scenario changes again as he seems to float on his back through the rooms, now empty and derelict, as he mouths an operatic aria.
Unlike the other videos, this one seems more specifically related to gender identification and acceptance and, though beautiful, is not as emotionally compelling. There is no attempt in it to establish a relationship with another character that creates tension and drama.
Just is a rising star who has had major gallery and museum shows. This one was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and I'm sorry there are only four from his catalog for us to see.
At one level he could be considered a cynic in creating emotional scenarios that lead us to expect some cathartic finale without getting it. But even though we put these art videos in a cinematic context, we should understand that these are scenes, not a big picture. Just doesn't go for resolution or full circle. He wants to move us and expose the futility of loneliness. He might be saying that love can make fools of us all but, more importantly, he makes us feel it's company we want to keep.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.