Video Art for Nike Stores

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This artist's work has appeared in the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. This fall, his work will be found in a very different locale: Nike stores.

Robert Wilson, the avant-garde theater director, artist and designer famed for collaborating with composer Philip Glass on the opera "Einstein on the Beach," as well as for his work on various other shows, museum installations and projects with David Byrne, Tom Waits, William Burroughs and Lou Reed, has recently created video portraits for Nike retail displays, with Beautiful Losers producer Noah Khoshbin.

The Nike Video Portraits are based on an approach to portraiture that Wilson has developed over the last few years. His video portraits infuse the traditional two-dimensional format with dramatic lighting, subtle movement and theatrical character techniques. From 2004, Wilson created video portraits of celebrities, Nobel Prize winners and animals—Brad Pitt, Alan Cumming and Mikhail Baryshnikov among them—with Voom HD networks, as a way to put his art directly into America's living rooms. Adam Glickman, current creative director of agency Suitmen and the founder of Tokion magazine, saw the potential of expanding these video portraits into the realm of youth culture, style and apparel, Wilson says. With its focus on art and the science of design, Nike seemed a likely fit.

To promote the shoemaker's new Sportswear line, Wilson created portraits of street athletes as well as the brand's iconic sneakers. The videos are edited to loop seamlessly, so they appear to have no beginning or end.

"Each portrait has its own story to tell," Wilson says. "We started with this idea of tapping into 35 years of Nike innovation, mining that history. Then, this theme of tapping and tap dancing started to evolve. Dance of course relates to my own work on the stage and to people I've worked extensively with--the tap dancing of the legendary Charles 'Honi' Coles to the rock beat of someone like Lou Reed."

Below, Wilson explains a few of the individual portraits from the series.


We studied Nike's history very closely, as well as the histories of the subjects and products that we shot. There is never simply one reference for any of the video portraits. For Japanese skateboarder Shingo Iwasaki we first looked to "Japanese Fruits," the punk kids who hang out on the street in Tokyo with multiple layers of clothing on. For the skating portrait we referenced Nike's innovation and design by working with a Cal Tech scientist from NASA's jet propulsion laboratory who happens to make mathematic fractal art as a hobby. We selected a beautiful interlocking fractal and then overlaid Shingo doing rail slides on the bars and popping Ollies from one section of the image to another. In the way that fractals build, we replicated many different versions of Shingo all interacting to create a unique new image.


With the BMX trick rider, Nigel Sylvester, we saw the cartoon and video game world in his style, so his portrait was modeled on themes like Mario Brothers. Nigel has this remarkable ability to do tricks while seeming to float and hang in the air, so we wanted to represent that somehow. This element also reflects Nike's early history of marketing Michael Jordan's uncanny ability to fly. So we decided to depict Nigel as perpetually suspended in the sky. Having shot him against a green screen in the studio, we then edited the piece to make it appear as if he were using the clouds in his various gravity-defying stunts.


For Sofia Boutella, we went in the other direction and let Sofia just be Sofia. Since she has such a mastery of her own physical and visual vocabulary we simply asked her to dance in whatever manner she desired. The result is capturing her signature style in black and white. I have been told that the light behind her looks a little like the train's light from my "Einstein on the Beach" theater piece, and the flashing lights and choreography could be read into that work. The other seated portrait we did of Sofiaactually references an earlier video portrait I did of Salma Hayek––which itself references a photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the 1940s. So it is all a little complicated, but there is a unifying thread that runs through each of them.


For the Dunk portrait we saw it as a kind of introductory image, a youth standing behind a curtain, maybe a youth that is shy or alienated. We appreciated the allegory of the curtain unveiling this whole new collection. We also liked the idea of portraying the Dunk shoe doing a tap routine, an older form of dance that references history. We added an aural element as well by using actual, clicking tap shoe sounds in a lyrical way, maybe the way Honi Cowles would have done it. During the video sequence, the curtain changes through different primary colors in reference to the primary colors of college teams that made the Dunk popular. The two shoes are never the same, like the radical hybrid which defines youth culture.

Air Max 90:

For the Air Max 90 we wanted to reference air (for obvious reasons) but also space, which signifies futuristic technological advancement. Air Max shoes fly through space in a chronological series hurtling towards the viewer one after another, from the very first designs right up to the 2008 model. Our initial concept of deep space turned to the Big Bang symbol––a defining explosion that propels history forward. To show what we are able to do in terms of coloration and pacing, we illustrated a cartoon explosion, an explosive pop piece.
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