James Richards’ video, Rosebud, greets the viewer at the entrance to the MoMA show, Cut to Swipe, currently on view in New York. The exhibition includes recent acquisitions by the Department of Media and Performance Art that appropriate and manipulate images and sound drawn from a wide range of media. Created in 2013, Richards’ black-and-white video is installed on a large flat-screen monitor that is angled in the room towards the door. Rather than being mounted to a wall, the display is on a stand and assumes its own presence in the space.
Richards interweaves his own sumptuous imagery, some of which was taken with an underwater camera, with footage from a Tokyo library where censors scratched out the genitalia of nude photographs in books of Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray and Wolfgang Tillmans. At just under thirteen minutes, Richards’ video takes the viewer on a seductive ride that includes scenes of elderflower teasingly dragged along a puckering anus, the hands and arms of a woman rolling along a floor and appropriated flickering images of parakeets that give the sense of taking flight. This work succinctly embodies the curatorial conceit of this show as it mingles the 20th-century strategies of collage and montage with dazzling digital production.
Richards, a British artist living and working in Berlin, was nominated for the Turner prize in 2014 for Rosebud. In a short video interview made in tandem with his nomination, he discusses the piece and his working methods. He had been shooting with an underwater camera and was interested in the way it refracted and distorted images. Later, after accidentally coming upon the censored images, he wanted to find a way to combine them with his original footage. Although the imagery is largely of the material world, he compares his use of it to abstract sculpture or painting. He then explains that how the images become the thing around which he starts composing the audio and he regards the imagery as having the same malleability as sound.
The video feels like a meditation on desire and the pleasure of looking. It includes many excruciatingly tight shots that linger over details that we usually push past. Throughout, he creates wonderful linkages like the wrinkles of foreskin with the lines in a woodcut illustration. The viewer is aware of Richards’ sensitivity in handling the overabundance of imagery because never once does s/he feel overwhelmed; instead, Richards invites the viewer into a rhythmic experience that continues to unfold and suggests unlimited possibility. The overall effect is akin to a masterful mix tape made by a friend that includes the gems from his personal collection.