Nan Hoover (E)


In her work, Nan Hoover (1931-2008) had a clear goal: she wanted to excite the viewer’s imagination. She wanted to open a dialogue. Rather than imposing anything, she wanted to place something before him. Essentially, as she said herself in an interview: “I am not telling the viewer, this is a cup of tea, I am saying, this could be a cup of tea, what do you think?”(1)
Although during the different phases of her long career she employed various disciplines in order to achieve this goal – video, performance, photography, drawing, sculpture and painting – the tools she used were actually always the same: light, movement, time and space.
It therefore comes as no surprise that more than 35 years ago she enthusiastically embraced the then new medium of video.

She encountered it first in 1973, three years after she had left New York and settled in Amsterdam. There were already a few practitioners of the medium in The Netherlands, but the group was small. There was only one artist lucky enough to own a video camera: Michel Cardena, who had fled from Colombia.
The first time Nan Hoover managed to get her hands on the camera, her response was completely in line with her views on art. “My main attraction was to move in real time, to decide how I wanted to move in real time (…). It was like creating in space. Electronic space, which was even more interesting and fascinating to me because it is very mysterious.” (2)

For many of the first video artists the medium was one of defiance. For Nam June Paik for example – the first artist to use the portable video camera – the attraction of video was as a medium to provide – seemingly, at least – a reaction to television, which was becoming increasingly commercial and increasingly undemocratic. With video it was possible to work live, which was something that could rarely be seen on the television. It was possible to give a video work all the time it needed. How often was this possible on the big, commercial stations where every second was expressed in terms of hard dollars? For conceptual artists such as John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman it was a perfect medium to shift attention from the outward appearance to the idea. A videotape was an excellent means for dematerializing art, as formulated by the American critic Lucy Lippard. (3) After all, videotape was difficult to present in a museum and was totally unsuitable for buying and selling.
Nan Hoover was a different sort of pioneer. In this she was unique. Her choice was not art-politically motivated at all. She chose the medium purely for its intrinsic (technical) qualities. She therefore had no need, later, to return to her basic principles and was able to consistently follow her chosen route.

For her its most important quality was ‘real time’. In her view allowing a video work to last as long as the recording had taken enabled the tension to be built up, and provided the viewer with the same intense experience that the maker had had. ‘Real time’ was the best way for her to spark his imagination. A video work in ‘real time’ could even have a contemplative or eroticizing effect. Appropriately, her video works are silent or only have natural sounds and never have intrusive closing titles.
Her deep-rooted belief in ‘real time’ meant that she never wavered from this principle, while almost all other artists, also her fellow pioneers, ultimately started to edit their recordings, whereby time was cut and thus became fictitious.

When she started, her main ‘subject’ was parts of her own body and she saw that if she stabilized the camera and moved her body, the light changed continuously. These transformations could then be refined if she performed the movements slowly. She was exploring her body with the camera. Light and shadow slide by, creating transitional images that obscure the view of reality, of the source. The passage of time may be absolute, but what is the viewer actually seeing? Part of a face? A (palm of a) hand? Part of an arm? In, for example, ‘Movement in Light’ from 1977 or in ‘Halfsleep’ from 1984, what is really happening? In later works when she starts to (also) work with materials, fabric for example in ‘The Desert’ (1985) and paper in ‘Returning to Fuji’ (1984), this only serves to increase the mystification. Here she is giving the viewer food for thought. Using it to invite the viewer to participate, to enter into a dialogue with her.

Movement assumes not only the passage of time but also space. While in her videotapes the use of space can be taken as understood, in her video installations Nan Hoover is able to take this quality of the medium to another level. For example in her installations in Amsterdam (‘Walking in Any Direction…’ in ‘Het Lumineuze Beeld’, Stedelijk Museum, 1984) and Bonn (‘Movement in Either Direction’, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle, 1995) she has the viewer enter her darkened space and makes him aware of this by using a camera to record his actions and to display these onto one or more video screens. Physically placing him in her work also ensures that the dialogue she seeks takes place; at the same time making him aware of all the specific qualities of the medium.

For me, Nan Hoover’s work has yet another quality. In all her work, not just her video oeuvre, but also her photos, drawings and performances she was always able to achieve maximum effect using minimum means.
Whether this was the technical means, the subjects, the gestures, the lighting, the colors or the manner of presentation, she avoided any superfluity. She never did anything because it was “in” or “that’s how it should be”. This enabled her to fully focus the viewer’s attention on the essence of her work.
Her strength lay in this simplicity.
It is this quality in particular that makes her work timeless.
Timeless in real time.

Paris, August 2009.

1. Rob Perrée, Dialogue. About Nan Hoover, Cologne 2001, p. 27;
2. Idem, p. 30;
3. Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, New York 1973.