Visual Artists Direct Music Videos

By Elizabeth Carney, Assistant Curator
Music videos offer an incredible opportunity for pop culture and visual art to collide. Artists who we would typically see represented in museums or galleries often collaborate with musicians, lending their aesthetic as visual interpretation for their songs.
Besides often being quite fun, these crossover collaborations offer insights into the connections artists see between their work and music others are creating. And, as viewers, we get to see those connections and original interpretations. This is part of why I like Sam Taylor-Wood’s video for Elton John’s song “I Want Love,” and decided to include it in Staged, a photography/video exhibition on view at the Akron Art Museum through September 27.
First of all, the musician: Elton John. The song has all the makings for a good pop tune—drama, melodrama, sadness, angst, regret, self-deprecation, bared emotions, desire—and is tightly laced with the singer’s huge celebrity.
Next, the director: Sam Taylor-Wood (aka Sam Taylor-Johnson). Known for photograph and video work, Taylor-Wood has exhibited her art in at several museums. London’s National Portrait Gallery commissioned her portrait of David Beckham, a video in which the football star is depicted sleeping. John approached her for “I Want Love,” and she knew the video should be a single shot of someone (but not Elton) lip-syncing the words to the song.
Last but not least, the talent: Robert Downey, Jr. Elton John thought of Downey for this role, but wondered whether the actor would take the job. Downey had struggled for many years with drug addiction, and his wife had just left him and taken their son. John wondered if the song would hit too close to home, with lyrics such as “I want love, but it’s impossible / A man like me, so irresponsible / A man like me is dead in places / Other men feel liberated.” But Downey accepted.
A few more examples of music videos directed by primarily visual artists:
1. Yoshitomo Nara: “Banana Chips” by Shonen Knife
Shonen Knife is an all-women Japanese punk-pop band formed in the 1980s (“Shonen” translates to “boy,” by the way; “Boy Knife”). The song is so simple and fun, it makes me smile on its own, but the video makes me love it.
Yoshitomo Nara is an artist I’ve known for a long time. Also Japanese, he draws, paints and sculpts anime-like figures that are adorable at the same time they seem to be drowning in their own ennui. Hugely influenced by music, he’s a fan of the band. He designed the cover of their 1998 album Happy Hour and also created a 3D animated video for “Banana Chips.”
Not enough animated punk pop for you? Shonen Knife covered “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees—and Nara made the video.
2. Takashi Murakami: “Good Morning” by Kanye West
Mentioning Nara tends to bring up Murakami, another well-known contemporary Japanese artist whose work is infused with anime culture. Murakami collaborated with Kanye West to create this animated video. It is rather fun to see West portrayed as an adorable bear cartoon. Murakami also designed the cover for West’s Graduation album.
Kanye West has expressed his love of great anime films, so it’s no real surprise that his music reflects that interest—his single “Stronger” is accompanied by a video (by Hype Williams) inspired by the Japanese anime Akira.
3. Allison Schulnik: “Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear (2009)
This is a recent find for me. I came across this video in an exhibition of animation art called Screen Play at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY (open through September 13). Projected on a wall, the visuals were almost overwhelming at first—figures in clay melt and reform themselves in grotesque movements of color and ambiguous body parts. The song is very soothing, however, and I find myself endeared to the odd forest creatures that move about and sing forlornly.
Interestingly, this video was labeled differently when on view in the gallery exhibition. There, it was titled Forest.
Grizzly Bear is an indie-rock band from New York. Their other music videos are similarly compelling, sometimes grotesque, always of high production quality. Nice music, too.
4. Robert Longo: “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order (1986)
I must say, this is one of my favorite 80s songs, but I only recently watched the video and learned it had been directed by Robert Longo. The video features a falling man in a suit, a theme that Longo investigated in depth in his Men in the Cities series of photographs.
Longo directed a number of other music videos as well, including “The One I Love” by R.E.M., “Boy (Go)” by the Golden Palominos and “Peace Sells” by Megadeath.
New Order has made several other collaborative music videos, including “Blue Monday” directed by William Wegman and Robert Breer—yes, it includes Wegman’s iconic weimaraners.
5. Andy Warhol: “Hello Again” by The Cars (1984)
Andy Warhol absolutely loved celebrity and pop culture, and was deeply a part of it as a multimedia artist. His video work was fascinating. I wouldn’t by any means classify this music video for a song by The Cars as one of Warhol’s best, but it is interesting to see what he came up with for this TV-destined collaboration with one of the hot bands of the time. That is indeed Warhol playing the part of the bartender, by the way.
6. Damien Hirst: “See the Light” by The Hours
Slightly disturbing in content, just like much of Hirst’s artwork. Hirst was artistic director for this music video, which includes elements you might have found in the major exhibition of his work that circulated a few years ago. You may know him from his (in)famous 1991 sculpture, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark suspended in a formaldehyde tank. Other work involves medicine cabinet-like sculptures and various animal parts.
In this video, a woman inserts herself into the showcases of a fashion store, which take on an eerie clinical quality. It seems a bit melodramatic at the same time it is serious, with heightened emotions and metaphors that typify many music videos—making it an excellent ending to this brief list.
Did I miss a favorite artist-directed music video? Tell us in a comment.