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For over thirty years, Lundberg has integrated the formalist qualities of painting, performance art, and film to speak to the human condition.









There is a deliberate ‘de-prioritization’ of language: for Lundberg, the real narrative is contained within the image.








Like others, Lundberg responded to the new expansionism within contemporary art practice, where painters were moving toward film, sculptors were moving toward painting, and static disciplines were merging into the kinetic realm.












Building upon the theory of the "imagination," Lundberg’s actors would lead audience members into the realm of possibility without superimposing a completed narrative.














Silent Dinner -1976




















Corner -1983








Opening -1998
























The Syntax of Illusion

Valerie Cassel

How does one position the work of Bill Lundberg? A pioneer in the filed of contemporary film and video installation, Lundberg has engaged in aesthetic investigations that predate and presage those of his more notable contemporaries including Gary Hill, Bill Viola, and Tony Oursler. For over thirty years, Lundberg has integrated the formalist qualities of painting, performance art, and film to speak to the human condition. To understand the invaluable contributions of this pioneer, to position his work within the spectrum of contemporary art practice, viewers must first experience his illusory presence. Lundberg is a magician of the human heart. In walking through this exhibition, a small labyrinth of Lundberg’s career, one is immediately seduces by the artist’s creation and his ability to draw the viewer into the looking glass of life.

The film and video installations by Lundberg beckon their viewers. Emerging out of the darkness, their beams of light draw us onto a magical stage, into an illusory sphere where apparitions become actors whose carefully scripted narratives serve to render the human condition transparent. The apparitions that appear on Lundberg’s illusory stage are like their viewers—men, women, and children—but they are trapped inside a shaken "snow globe". By peering into their carefully constructed worlds, we come to understand them as the dramatis personae behind a proverbial message in a bottle. Their existence evokes a heightened sense of awareness, making us, as viewers, self-conscious and aware of our own fragility. Yet it is only through Lundberg’s eyes and perspective that we are privileged to enter into this new consciousness.(1) Suspended in space—a swimmer floating in a rectangular pool or miniaturized people gesturing in a glass of drinking water—the characters living within the video frame are incapable of seeing what we see: the consciousness behind the gesture, the emotion beneath the action, a soul in the throes of catharsis.

With his emphasis on the image as an emotive conveyor of language and behavior, Lundberg connects viewers to his illusory world through a fragmented moment in time. The nonlinear narratives, either verbalized or gestured, become a bridge to the outer world, a seminal device that aids us in grasping our own humanness. It is the viewers’ individual and collective understanding of each character’s language that enables Lundberg to skillfully mediate our perception of the work as psychosocial.(2) What we as viewers can imagine —can fill in between the gaps in Lundberg’s scripted scenes—awakens our own histories and experiences. The resonance between his images and our own realities thus provides Lundberg with the power, as an artist, to strip away the superficial and present us with the core of our being.

"The Syntax of Illusion" pays homage to Lundberg’s magic. He manipulates the slippages of aural and visual perception so viewers can construct their own narratives and arrive at their own necessary catharsis. This work is closely aligned to the structuralism that arose in Europe in the 1960s.(3) But Lundberg’s deliberate use of fragmented moments and dialogue spoken in the void speaks more to his desire to privilege the image by isolating it within the realm of the viewer’s experience.(4) There is a deliberate ‘de-prioritization’ of language: for Lundberg, the real narrative is contained within the image. Even as Lundberg’s inversion of the tradition that privileges language within the hierarchy of communication presents new ideal for the dual relationship of language and image, it also sets into motion a new consciousness, one that empowers the viewer’s imagination and perceptions over Lundberg’s own authorship.

Lundberg’s aesthetic directives over his thirty-year career are firmly rooted in two elements: the counter-culture of the 1960s and the movement away from painting, first to performance art and then to film and video installation.

Lundberg completed his graduate studies in painting in the late 1960s at the University of California at Berkeley. During that decade, antiwar protests of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and other challenges to the prevailing cultural conventions would give way to radically challenging theories and philosophies emerging within academic institutions.(5) These theories and philosophies spurred the development of a creative extremism in art, including a free exploration of art disciplines and a deliberate attempt to collapse the domain, or hierarchy, of art making. Like others, Lundberg responded to the new expansionism within contemporary art practice, where painters were moving toward film, sculptors were moving toward painting, and static disciplines were merging into the kinetic realm. In addition to attending lectures by Anna Freud, Lundberg frequented Canyon Cinema, discovering the experimental works of Michael Snow and other filmmakers, experiences that had a profound effect upon Lundberg’s approach to art making. However, rather than move into filmmaking itself, Lundberg turned to performance, developing work for small ensembles that explored the human psyche.

Like many young painters in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lundberg began to work the properties of painting into a more kinetic and expansive mode of art presentation. His subsequent performance art, however, did not seek to pay homage to the formalism of painting, but instead mined the slippages between actual and perceived visual narrative. Lundberg’s investigations of performance emerged from a desire to replace the act of speaking with the mute image. Inherent in this effort was Lundberg’s wish to privilege the image, to allow the image dominant in painting to encompass both intent and narrative in performance. It was this emphasis on the illusionary image, one that could parallel the viewer’s own realities, that eventually enabled Lundberg to reconstruct the human context as primary and thus to generate a greater sense of connection with his audiences.

Lundberg’s interest in the human context as being key to the structure of narrative later led him to incorporate a structuralist element in his work. By allowing viewers to activate their own imagination, the image gave them ownership of the narrative, as opposed to relying on Lundberg as sole author. (6) For the traditional duality of author and image to expand to include the viewer as author, the image had to be primary—devoid of any barriers that might forestall the viewer’s insertion as the author of his or her own narrative.

In the early 1970s, Lundberg moved to London to continue his explorations into structuralism and performance. These explorations culminated in a three-actor performance work entitled Him. The work, Beckettian in its employment of nonlinear and fragmented narrative, played upon the audience’s experiences and perceptions to complete the story, which had as many outcomes as viewers in attendance. Building upon the theory of the "imagination," Lundberg’s actors would lead audience members into the realm of possibility without superimposing a completed narrative. Audiences were allowed to engage in the creative process, to pen the conclusion of Lundberg’s script through their own constructions of its alluded characters. In truth, the character as scripted could exist in the viewer’s mind as a completed person only as each actor discussed him or her, based on different people they knew. This activation of the imagination was, in Lundberg’s mind, the strongest aspect of the performance work, a successful element that he wanted to translate into a more intimate, yet still populist medium—one essentially designed to play upon the viewer’s presuppositions.

The conceptual framework for Him generated a new syntax for constructing narrative. Through this interactive mechanism, Lundberg continued to explore fictional content in an "imaginary" way.(7) He would later incorporate this new syntax into his first film installation work, Swimmer (1975). Eager to move back into a visual practice with the more formalized technique learned from his performance work, Lundberg extended his aesthetic of "new consciousness" to film. Swimmer is a seminal work for Lundberg, who used film to diminish the narrow divide between illusion and reality even further. Presenting a parallel reality to its viewers, Swimmer is empowered by slippages within the viewer’s emotional perception. 8 Devoid of spoken language, thus embodying Lundberg’s ideal of narrative encompassed by image, Swimmer includes a scripted series of gestures with which the actor in Lundberg’s installation conveys a range of emotions. Viewers interpret these gestures based upon their own social understanding. Lundberg went on to incorporate the presentation of the work as an essential element: to underscore the psychological state of vulnerability, Lundberg placed the image of the installation on the floor. The intent was to show the actor as trapped within a dimension that offers no escape. Although the actor attempts to connect with his viewers, he only floats to the borders of his confinement, looking outward. The world of the swimmer is one of alienation, although the expanse of water comprising his world implies that he is not totally helpless. He has to come to reconcile his apparent helplessness with his ability to actually emerge from his situation. When the actor does leave his rectangular prison (not shown in this exhibition print), he walks into the eternal light of nothingness.(9)

After the exhibition of Swimmer at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, Lundberg moved back to the United States and settled in New York. He began exhibiting with Gibson Gallery in SoHo, again presenting Swimmer and a new work entitled Silent Dinner (1975-76). At that time Gibson Gallery supported a number of young edgy film and video installation artists, including Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, Leandro Katz, and others. In the mid 1970s, installation work in video and film was still considered a marginalized exploration in contemporary art practice. It would not be until the early 1980s that the practice of film and video installation became legitimized by art museums. During this period, Lundberg also created the work Charades (1977).

Similar to Swimmer, Charades deals with Lundberg’s notion of language as subservient to the image, as well as with the psychological construction of containment. In the work, five actors communicate through a game of charades, which limits expression to silent gestures. In Lundberg’s rendition, the actors play the game within a hermetically sealed world (inaccessible to viewer participation). Lundberg has also changed the rules. Instead of using ordinary words or phrases, he has chosen quotes, penned by well-known and lesser-known artists, that query the illusory quality of art and visual language. A total of eight quotes includes:

Art is the definition of art (Sol LeWitt).

Art is the lie that reveals the truth (Pablo Picasso).

Art is like a watch that goes fast sometimes (Franz Kafka).

Art is long and time is fleeting (anonymous actor featured in Charades).

The projected image of these quotes emphasizes the allusive and ethereal nature of art and the chasm that lies between art and the reality in which it exists. The work is contemplative, rendering the discussion of these ideals as an intimate exploration. The mechanics of the work—filmed actors projected onto a plastic sheet submerged in a glass of water— serve to magnify the invisible aspects of the art-making process and reveal the hidden human context (in this instance, the practice and intent of the artist) along with a new consciousness of the artists’ vulnerability. The smallness of the projected image evokes for Lundberg the powerlessness that artists feel in their attempts to assert themselves within the larger social landscape.

Ironically, by the 1980s the edginess of film and video installation work had been overshadowed by a new movement in painting. Spearheaded by a group of young painters including Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Sharf, the movement drew upon the shifting subculture of New York, capturing the attention of the art world and subsequently its market. With less emphasis placed upon video and film installation work, opportunities for exhibiting Lundberg’s work became less frequent.

In 1983 Lundberg’s installation Corner was featured in that year’s Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Corner is Lundberg’s personal response to the sudden change in the aesthetic and cultural climate of New York. Initially rendered as a drawing (also included in this exhibition), Corner came to the attention of the Whitney curator John Hanhardt, who encouraged Lundberg to develop it as an installation work.(10) The installation portrays a five-year-old boy playing solitaire. There is an air of pessimism as the boy attempts to control a game for which there is no control. The viewer is made to feel the child’s frustration as he attempts to make sense of something beyond easy understanding or prediction. The alienated withdrawal evident in the work mirrors Lundberg’s own emotional state during that time, when he lacked the means to deal with the rapid shifts that were wrenching New York’s art and housing markets. By 1985 Lundberg had left New York.

He was offered a visiting artist position at The University of Texas in Austin and was later hired to develop its Transmedia Department. Over the next twenty-five years, Lundberg continued to develop ideas for his films and video installation work, exhibiting sporadically throughout the country and Brazil. His ongoing collaboration with his wife, Brazilian filmmaker and conceptual artist Regina Vater, provided an expanding vocabulary for his work. In 1999 Lundberg was selected as an artist-in-residence at San Antonio’s Pace Art Foundation for Contemporary Art. The ArtPace residency would prove an essential turning point in the artist’s career, providing much need resources of time and financial support with which to create a new series of work. During his residency, Lundberg created Opening, then rediscovered and digitally recreated the film Madeline (both 1999), the latter of which is presented in this exhibition.

Opening, a fragmented visual narrative of a presumed opening reception for an art event, was shot on 16mm film using mirrors and a scripted choreography for its actors. It led Lundberg to reinvestigate a more intimate portrait of life in the work Madeline, which began as a Super-8 film in 1977, but was shelved by Lundberg as an incomplete idea. However, during his ArtPace residency, Lundberg rediscovered the film and recorded it using digital video (his first work in the new medium). In the twenty-two years taken to complete the work, Lundberg had gone full circle in his artistic explorations of engaging the formalism of painting and performance.

In Madeline, the mining of interpersonal relationships through a nonlinear, largely spoken narrative forms the nexus between Lundberg’s initial love of painting and his interest in performance art: the work reposition the nude in art historical terms (we see only Madeline’s feet in a shower), while it verbally probes the complex psychology of everyday life. The initial dialogue for the work was much longer, but Lundberg shortened the narrative to create an abstracted and ambiguous fiction depicting the relationship between two people. The integration of spoken dialogue and scripted gesture shows Lundberg’s use of cinema to not only parallel ordinary reality but also reveal the dynamics of human interaction. While the work suggests a particular fiction, its strength lies in its ability to serve as the viewer’s own meditation upon private relationships.

Lundberg interviewed several couples and singles for the work, later choosing to record the script using two actors who were neither married to each other nor acquainted. Lundberg did, however, manage to capture the intimacy of a coupe’s exchange. This intimacy is further magnified by Lundberg’s condensation of the image: the fragment of a larger architectural frame supposes not only a history behind the relationship, but also fictional space— a bathroom, a bedroom, a house. While the title of the work implies that it is named for its female actor, Lundberg employs the name as an illusion to assure the viewers that the film is an authentic portrait of a real woman who is both engaged and alienated in her own relationship.

Wash (2001), premiering in this exhibition as a work-in-progress, expands upon Lundberg’s investigations of the intimate portrait. Created almost thirty years after Swimmer, Wash demonstrates Lundberg’s keen sense of how psychological profiles are conveyed through gestured language. Created as a personal exploration of mortality, the work includes twelve images (six are featured in this exhibition) of men between the ages of eighty and ninety caught in the act of washing their hands. Inspired by the death of his father and his own awareness of aging, Lundberg began contemplating the elements of end-of-life reflection, asking what one sees in the history of one’s life and how lives are reflected, literally and metaphorically. The washing of one’s hands is a symbolic act of expiation, even more so in Lundberg’s investigation where twelve installations of men washing their hands suggest the justice meted out by twelve jurors. But this is justice residing in the minds of individuals who judge themselves and their own actions at the close of their lives. The individuality is evident in the varying modes of washing hands, an act so ingrained as to make transparent each complex state of being.

Lundberg’s choice of men in their eighties or older speaks to his larger concern for the injustices enacted over the past century and what it has wrought in the present. Men of that generation were constrained by the prevailing obligation to serve and uphold. In part a tribute to the artist’s father, a naval captain and war veteran, Wash perhaps best represents Lundberg’s gift of transparency, creating an outlet for viewers to see their own vulnerability as both author and subject. Finally, the magician reveals himself through his own illusion.

Lundberg’s craft is further revealed through a series of drawings and sketches. The drawings included in this exhibition have never before been exhibited. They exist as both studies for Lundberg’s film and video installations as well as products of a formal painter. The twelve drawings featured in this exhibition are only a fraction of the work that Lundberg has maintained over the course of his career. They convey the inner workings of Lundberg’s mind, the visible traces of a magician’s craft. In these drawings Lundberg offers viewers the blueprints of his illusory worlds, here devoid of the slippage of a filmic medium and scripted narrative. It is a generous act on behalf of the artist, whose work over thirty years has laid the foundation of a movement in film and video installation. The honesty of this artist’s work is profound, and his efforts have brought us through the labyrinth to a greater understanding of ourselves.


(1) Robert Morgan, ed. Art and Performance: Gary Hill (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 6. Many artistic correlations exist between the work of Lundberg and certain of his contemporaries including Gary Hill and Bill Viola. Morgan’s description of Hill’s work is quite relevant to Lundberg.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United Sttes, c.1958-1974 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 289-358.

(4) Bill Lundberg, interview with the author, September 22, 2001.

(5) Marvick, pp. 289-358.

(6) Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 6-26.

(7) Bill Lundberg, interview with the author, September 22, 2001. Lundberg views his own use of language as submissive to the image as well as to the conceptual framework of the viewer as author.

(8) Bill Lundberg, interview with the author, September 22, 2001.

(9) Bill Lundberg, interview with the author, September 22, 2001.The artist discusses the impact of the work Swimmer on his later practice.

(10) Bill Lundberg, interview with the author, September 22, 2001.




Imediata thanks artist Bill Lundberg for his permission to display parts of his video works online, the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, Texas and Valerie Cassel, author of the text, for their authorization to present it in its original English version and its Portuguese translation online.

This publication has been prepared in conjunction with Bill Lundberg: Syntax of Illusion, the 131th exhibition in the Perspectives series, organized by Valerie Cassel, Associate Curator, for the Contemporary Arts Museum, December 14, 2001 — March 3, 2002.

Contemporary Arts Museum

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