Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art 1905-2016by Charlene K. Lau
Whitney Museum of American Art
October 28, 2016 – February 5, 2017
Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art 1905-2016 chronicles the development of the moving image in mediums ranging from drawing, painting, and film to installation, performance, and 2D and 3D video. Comprising the work of over forty artists and filmmakers, curator Chrissie Iles’s massive undertaking speaks comprehensively to the expanded field of cultural production, where the cinematic moves beyond its disciplinary boundaries and unites art with lived experience.
The historical works in Dreamlands are captivating in part for their insight and unhinged distillation of their temporality. It is difficult to ignore the finery of drawings for Walt Disney’s concert film Fantasia (1940) and Syd Barrett’s concepts for Ridley Scott’s dystopic science fiction Blade Runner (1982), which enable the viewer to travel to and through altered and future worlds. Other works, including Anthony McCall’s solid light installation Line Describing a Cone (1973) and Jud Yakult’s filmic installation Destruct Film (1967), articulate immersiveness through their multi-sensory environments. Yakult’s work envelops its viewer in a combination of projected footage with tangled masses of unspooled film on the floor. Being placed literally in and amongst the film, the materiality of which snaps underfoot in a heightened state of degradation, it seems almost like a wry foreshadowing of digital technology’s arrival and subsequent dismantling of the analog.
Other historic works, such as a film of Oskar Schlemmer’s delightfully strange Der Triadisches Ballett (The Triadic Ballet) (1922/1970), continue to amaze. Taking on Schlemmer’s own Bauhaus interests and the Romantic concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) as its form, the ballet merges theater, costume, and music into a visual spectacle. This disciplinary ambiguity extends to Schlemmer’s ballet in its presentation as film; it is neither completely dance nor cinema, but something in between.
Moving into more contemporary ground is Lorna Mills’s Ways of Something (2014/2015), a collaborative work that re-interprets John Berger’s classic television program Ways of Seeing (1972). Mills invited 113 artists to each create digital works in response to a one-minute audio clip from the show. The result was four half-hour episodes addressing—sometimes humorously, sometimes critically—Berger’s interpretation of paintings in the Western art historical canon and the act of looking. The combined authorship of Mills’s work simultaneously speaks to the collaboration born of multidisciplinary work, and an underlying notion that cinematic work is inherently collaborative—a comforting notion given that social isolation and atomization that has come to pervade the contemporary world. A different sort of collaboration occurs in Dora Budor’s installation Adaptation of an Instrument (2016), which explores the interplay between cinema as a subject, memory, and human biology. Housed in a large steel cube, the work is instantly activated as one enters the space, immersing the viewer in a responsive lightshow that mimics the neurological pathways of the body. It is as if the room is alive, breathing like a technological lung or sparking and firing cell circuits as a brain would.
The exhibition concludes with Alex Israel’s enormous painting Sky Backdrop (2016), slightly hidden and a respite from the noisy agora of multisensory stimulation. Taking on the proportions of a panoramic CinemaScope screen and rendered by a hired professional backdrop painter, the painting, installed opposite a wall of east-facing windows, emits an almost unreal glow of cotton candy pinks and blues, as if a screen in conversation with the outside world. Here, the analog comes full circle, from film technology of the early 20th century, digital video, and the internet, to the stillness of painting, a medium that itself is constantly fighting against obsolescence in contemporary art. Perhaps the inclusion of Israel’s painting is a winking gesture, demonstrating that, like painting, the moving image continuously renews itself throughout history.
In this space of contemplation, I realized that there is little in the way of breathing room throughout. The works seem to meld together into a chaotic jumble, not in the sense that each is indiscernible from the other, but that there is true immersion of each work within the exhibition, itself a total work of art. In this way, cinematic art is not singular but multi-vocal; it is, at its core, collaborative and cross-disciplinary, all-encompassing and experiential. I take a cue from Boris Groys, who argues that the contemporary exhibition is the museum turned theater, which allows viewers to “enter the stage, and find themselves inside the spectacle.” As such, the viewer as observer-participant is not only in the same space as the work—positioned next to or in front of an installation—but physically within it. Sights and sounds abound, Dreamlands mirrors both the oversaturation of moving images and screens in our contemporary moment and our absorption in it.
ContributorCharlene K. Lau