Discussion of The Kiss, by Rafael Montanez Ortiz

Discussion of The Kiss
by Rafael Montanez Ortiz, 1985
Lolly Lincoln   8/8/12

When The Kiss was exhibited at The Netherlands Media Art Institute in 1986, Rafael Montanez Ortiz described his intentions in its catalog:  ‘In my video work, I seek to suspend time, to magnify beyond all proportion the fantasy, dream, or nightmare I glimpse in even the most realistic straightforward documentary footage, in even the most innocent storyline.’ (Rafael Montanez Ortiz).  The Kiss is a 6’17” video created from 7 seconds of original film footage from the 1947 Hollywood film Body and Soul, starring Lilli Palmer (a painter) and John Garfield (a boxer).
In the seven seconds of original film we see the street outside briefly, the man comes to the door, which opens, the couple kisses(initiated by the woman), she pushes him away, the door closes.   The director uses only seven seconds to portray the restraint expected by the Academy when depicting a couple’s new found passion in 1947.  The woman initiates the kiss, but then quickly, and properly, pushes him away so we can still see her as a “good girl” and our protagonist.  Ortiz slows the kiss down by chopping the original film with rough rhythmic edits, we see the street outside again before the loop repeats seamlessly.   The reconstruction exposes us to a slow, anticipated, and then sustained kiss, far more overtly sexual than Hollywood censors would have allowed in 1947.  MacDonald goes on to suggest, “Although they are standing up, their reconstructed motions suggest sexual intercourse and the flailing movements of erotic abandon and orgasm.” (p.191).
It is helpful to look at an earlier work by Ortiz to gain further insight into The Kiss.  In 1958 when he was a student at Pratt, Ortiz made a series of 8mm films that critic Scott MacDonald describes as constructive “deconstructivist” artworks.  Ortiz used images of chickens in a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn which were partially decapitated and twitching in the throes of death.  During this time he also did a performance which used a live chicken to clean a piano – in Henny Penny:  The Sky is Falling – killed the chicken and destroyed the piano with an ax, then scattered the feathers on the audience.  The sacrificial chicken would seem an obvious reference to Ortiz’ native Puerto Rico’s Santeria rituals.  And like the magical death in the Santeria ritual, there is a constructive aspect to the destruction, as MacDonald describes from Ortiz’ own explanation of the chickens’ death spasms.  Ortiz explains they are “a clinging to life, a positive thing, a life reflex like the heartbeat.” (p. 185, MacDonald).  This life-affirming spasm, this heartbeat investigated by Ortiz in Henny Penny, is further investigated in the spasmodic editing beating through all six minutes, seventeen seconds of The Kiss.    MacDonald further argues that the chickens’ “…very real spasms are a metaphor for the “spasm” caused by this filmmaker’s interruption of the smooth predictability of our pleasures.” (p. 186, MacDonald).
When Jacques Derrida describes the paradox of achieving construction in deconstruction he could be describing The Kiss:  “…they (Deconstructivists) are not simply reproducing, that they are trying to open something new and something original, something that hasn’t been done in that way… [it] is violent in a way, violent because it has no guarantee.” (Caputo, p.6).  Clearly Ortiz belongs to a line of artists descending from Cubism and Minimalism, who see new worlds in the breaking down of the old worlds.  The Kiss, and its slowed motion, pay visual tribute to works from history, like Nude Descending a Staircase or Muybridge’s series of action photographs.
Paul Wood’s description of the ‘conceptualism’ starting in the mid-1970’s might also be applied to The Kiss:  “… this had turned outwards to address the faultlines of contemporary society:  principally class and gender division, though extending also to questions of race (or ethnicity) and the environment.”  Ortiz grew up hispanic and poor in the Lower East Side, watching the Anglo protagonists reach happy endings in Hollywood movies like Body and Soul.  The first chaste kiss inevitably lead to marriage, and ultimately, to the sun setting on a happily-ever-after scene.  Was it even possible that these stereotypes could be applied to the hispanic experience, or as Ortiz had experienced American culture?  Clearly, as the founder of El Museo del Barrio in 1969, Ortiz acknowledges the cultural context in his work.  As Freeland describes the revolutionary process in art, “… it provides a point of critical resistance, building a new national identity by evoking cultural roots.” (Freeland, p.82)  Similar to Cindy Sherman’s photography later in the decade, Ortiz uses The Kiss to deconstruct traditional gender roles and the assumptions made about them in class-conscious American culture, particularly in the narratives of Hollywood culture.
In 1986, when The Kiss was made, pre-digital video technology was an evolved media from the mechanized production of the cinematic films of Hollywood.  Marshall McLuhan asserts that our technologies, being extensions of ourselves, evolve as we do.  As each new technology emerges, it “…creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading.  Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.” (McLuhan, p.13).  Ortiz uses new technology to turn the old one into an art form that finds the ‘faultlines’, and the metaphors attached to them, like the fairy tale notion of happily ever after, or that film is the ultimate truth.  The “content” of Ortiz’ piece in the new media environment of 1986 is the old mechanized media of the Machine Age.  By using quirky sustained and repetitive edits (albeit via primitive technology by contemporary standards), he calls attention to them, and makes the droning beat of edits themselves, at least partially, the content of The Kiss.
The Ortiz video is installed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in a carpeted dark black box space, including a two-person bench, and an opening adjoining two other separate video artworks.  The nearest of the other pieces includes headphones, which isolate its sound.  The third piece, however, is an artwork using steady swishing digital static, and its sound bled into The Kiss heart beat rhythm.  The impression created by the two blended soundtracks was different from what each might be alone.  The swishing sounded like the blood from the heart, and called the viewers attention to the curation of the work.  Was the sound space discourse between the two artworks intentional, or is the black box presentation meant to represent a vacuum in which the work exists, in which case the viewer is expected to ignore the competing sound.  Seth Kim-Cohen critiques Kubisch’s Electrical Walks, and the critical discussion of the art work, as neglecting peripheral contextual sounds; that art is “an activity that does not perform in a vacuum, but that necessarily interacts with culture, politics, commerce, and sociality-constitutes and is constituted by a vast meaning-making structure functioning in the manner of a text.” (Kim-Cohen, p.115)  In this sense, the video moves into the realm of installation, as the context can not be ignored.  The definition by Bishop in Installation Art applies to The Kiss, “the type of art into which the viewer physically enters, and which is often described as ‘theatrical’, ‘immersive’ or ‘experiential’.  Another theatrical discourse occurs in The Kiss every time a side door into the dark gallery was opened by a visitor.  By creating a jarring sound, a beam of light and a startled individual who then created a new narrative with the other viewers.  Intentional or not, the relation of the viewers to each other, and each individual’s decision to stay, watch 6’17” and “own” the viewing or to move quickly through, also became part of the work.  In that small space it was impossible to ignore “the others” viewing the art work.  Unlike in John Cage’s silent work for performer and piano, 4’33” the role of contingent phenomena was apparently not intended to have significance.
Like John Cage’s work 4’33”, The Kiss, at 6”17” tests our endurance.  The monotone drone opens a negative space that expands and allows new perceptions to arise.  In his book Silence Cage tells us, “In Zen they say:  If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four.  If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on.  Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”  (Cage, p.93)  As the sound track of The Kiss dominates the gallery sound space and surrounds the viewer, perhaps synchronizing with pulse and breathing, this sound becomes an artwork itself, almost separate and phenomenological, from the video.  The sound text/content of The Kiss is as important as the conceptual, symbolic visual text/content.  The synchronization of the visual edits and the heartbeat sound seem more incidental than causal.  The uneasy friction between pounding-heart drum beats, threatening the viewer with an altered perception, and the visually frustrated stutter of a conceptually postponed, overtly sexual Kiss fulfills Richard Anderson’s definition of art, “culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium.” (Freeland, p.77)

Bishop, C. B. (2005). Installation art. London: Tate Publishing.
Cage, J. (1961). Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Caputo, J. D. (1996). Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with jacques derrida.     Fordham University Press.
Freeland, C. (2001). But is it art?. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim-Cohen, S. (2009). In the blink of an ear: toward a non-cochlear sonic art. New     York: Continuum International Publishing.

MacDonald, S. R. (1996). Media destructivism: The digital/laser/videos of raphael     montanez ortiz. In C. Noriega & A. Lopez (Eds.), The Ethnic Eye: Latino Media     Arts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Canada:     McGraw-Hill Publishing.

About Lolly Lincoln

September 2010 will witness my 42nd consecutive first day of school. Darkroom photography is my chosen method of communication. I teach in the Cambridge Public Schools, grades k-8, and live in the neighborhood with my family.
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