Reconstructing Buky Schwartz’s ‘The Big Video Chair’
Museums face unique hurdles in collecting, preserving, and exhibiting time-based media. This broad term—time-based media—refers to film, video, audio, digital, and computer-based art that entails a temporal duration and depends on changing technology. Unstable by nature, these works don’t exist until assembled for display. Many require outdated technology such as cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, 16mm projectors, or 35mm slide projectors. Because of these constraints, additional documentation is often needed to support installation and conservation efforts.
Carnegie Museum of Art has roughly 400 works of time-based media. As the media archivist and co-director of CMOA’s Time-Based Media Project, I ensure the long-term accessibility and usability of these objects. When I started my position in 2014, I was immediately drawn to Buky Schwartz’s The Big Video Chair (1987), a sculpture described as “video equipment, wood, mirrors.” It was a bit of a mystery. None of the components had been inventoried or catalogued, so I didn’t have a good understanding of how big it was or how many parts it had. There was very little documentation, so I didn’t have any instructions to assemble it. Plus, the work relied on obsolete technology; the condition of the technical components was unknown; and it had been defaced in 1988, the last time it was on display.
It’s pronounced BOO-kie
Buky Schwartz (1932–2009) was an Israeli-born sculptor who began working with video in the 1970s. Initially, he wanted to document visitor interaction with his sculptures. While video proved inadequate for this purpose, Schwartz was fascinated by how it distorted reality. By the late 70s, he began creating video sculptures and large-scale environmental installations or “videoconstructions” using closed-circuit televisions (CCTV), which transmits a signal from a video camera to a specific set of monitors. Schwartz used CCTV to reveal how an environment or an object could be two-dimensional and three-dimensional simultaneously.
As I started researching Schwartz’s work and The Big Video Chair, I made some interesting discoveries in our institutional archives. In 1981, Schwartz came to CMOA to install the museum’s first exhibition to feature video. This show contained three works by Schwartz, including Summer 1981, in which he painted 18 tree logs with a continuous geometric shape visible only using CCTV monitors. Schwartz also exhibited Unison (1980), a 28-minute-long single-channel video piece, and White Flag Triangle (1980), a display of four Cibachrome photographs taken of his landscape sculpture at Tel Hai, Israel. Following the show, the museum purchased two single-channel pieces by Schwartz, Unison and Videoconstructions (1978). As the first video purchases by the museum, these marked a new phase in CMOA’s programming and exhibitions.
In 1987, the museum was gifted The Big Video Chair. Amos Melamede, chairman of the Domore Corporation, had commissioned the sculpture to celebrate a new Los Angeles showroom. After a stint in this location, the piece was donated to CMOA for the enjoyment of a broader audience. However, following a series of incidents that damaged the artwork, Schwartz’s Chair was removed from public view, crated, and put into deep storage.
One of the best descriptions of the piece can be found in Buky Schwartz’s Videoconstructions (1992), a book edited by CMOA’s former film and video curator, Bill Judson. As he explains, The Big Video Chair uses a CCTV system comprised of a camera and three CRT monitors. Perched on a wooden beam, the camera looks down on a ring of five inward-facing mirrors, each skewed at a different angle. Affixed to the mirror surfaces are short pieces of tape. From the camera’s perspective, the pieces of tape reflected by the mirrors combine to form a coherent image of a chair. That visual of a chair is played back on all three monitors, though the source of the image is not immediately apparent.
Visitor interaction is obviously integral to understanding the piece. Since the viewer cannot immediately understand the source of the chair image on the monitors, we can assume that Schwartz wanted visitors to be able to walk around the structure, wave their hands in front of the mirrors, and decipher how all the components fit together. This freedom with the work most likely led to the tape on the mirrors being defaced the last time it was on view.
We know it’s big, but exactly how big is it?
In March 2015, the museum opened Uncrated: The Hidden Life of Artworks, a nine-week exhibition in which a team of registrars, conservators, preparators, and curators shared their work with the public by examining objects recently taken out of storage. This exhibition provided us with the perfect opportunity to dig into the three crates that contained Schwartz’s The Big Video Chair, reassemble the wooden structure, check the condition of the video equipment, and create documentation.
Initially, the only photo we had of The Big Video Chair was from Buky Schwartz: Videoconstructions. But thankfully, a week prior to assembly, Schwartz’s estate provided us with a few photos that showed the sculpture from a variety of perspectives. As we unpacked the crates and laid out all the components, we compared the parts to the photos of the assembled piece. There were eight wooden beams that comprised the main structure of the chair. The beams were hollow and had notches where they connected with other pieces–kind of like Lincoln Logs. In addition to these wooden beams, there were four mirrors, a yellow panel, and three monitor supports.
After examining all the pieces, a team of art preparators and registrars slowly began assembling the wooden structure of the chair. Having photos from a number of different angles proved to be instrumental in helping us figure out how all the pieces fit together. After getting the main structure up, the team was left with a number of hand-size scrapes of wood and short dowels. Initially, we couldn’t figure out what these were used for, but then someone realized they help ‘lock’ the beams into place, making the structure more stable.
The crates did not contain any of the video components, but after some digging, I was able to locate a Panasonic PK-450B video camera and an 11-inch color video monitor in our media equipment storage. Without any documentation on the video components, we weren’t certain that these were used in the original installation. However, the dimensions of the monitor matched the dimensions of the wooden supports; in addition, after some research, we found a 1984 article from the New York Times stating that this type of camera worked well in extreme low-light levels and could be used in a CCTV system. So we felt somewhat confident that these were the originals.
The last time the sculpture was on view, a visitor had removed pieces of tape from the mirrors. Was the tape still in place? What condition was it in? Sadly, we found that all of the tape had been removed from the mirrors. If this were a typical exhibition that kept objects on view for several months, we would have reapplied the tape, sourced more monitors, and mounted the camera. But since Uncrated focused on a different artwork every week, we didn’t have the time to make this piece fully exhibition-ready.
Uncrated gave us a unique opportunity to learn more about The Big Video Chair, catalogue its parts, and create documentation where none existed previously. This is a luxury that we don’t typically get when researching and preserving complex time-based installation works. Perhaps the next time you encounter a museum piece like Schwartz’s The Big Video Chair, you’ll pause and ponder all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make it exhibition-ready and keep it operational.