Fleeting Reality


Cinematic Mash-Ups at Hirshhorn Blur Fact and Fiction

The second and final installment of “The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image” display at the Hirshhorn Museum isn’t as accessible, whimsical or eye-popping as the first, but its content is even more profound.

The second installment, “Realisms,” examines how cinema — encompassing moving-image media such as television and digital entertainment — alters our perceptions of reality. And the exhibition makes a convincing — and sometimes surprising case — for the blurring of those lines.

The exhibit features work by 19 international artists who examine two different facets of video and film. The first references global cinema, mainstream television and Hollywood production, while the second addresses how the media portrays historical people, places and events, as well as political propaganda and criminal trials.

As with the first installment (see April 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat), viewers will do themselves a favor by setting aside at least an hour or two — and possibly much more — to absorb the depth and complexity of this fascinating and unusual exhibition.

One of the more compelling works in the first section, Pierre Huyghe’s “The Third Memory,” plays off Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon.” In Huyghe’s piece, John Wojtowicz, the bank robber portrayed by Al Pacino, retells the story of that fateful day as the cameras roll. But as he relates his narrative, it becomes apparent that his retelling of events meshes reality with the version portrayed onscreen. Wojtowicz, an animated and interesting storyteller, has obviously watched the movie many times and incorporated elements of the Hollywood screenplay into his own version of events that inspired the film.

In “New York, New York,” Mungo Thomson tricks the viewer by projecting life-size moving video of a New York streetscape on all four walls of one room in the exhibition. At first glimpse, viewers feel as if they are standing in the middle of a real city street, with all of the objects one would find there in plain view: a weathered USA Today box, a decrepit bicycle chained to a street sign, a drape from an open window blowing in the breeze. But as the cameras shift, it becomes evident that the “street” scene is actually a fictitious movie set, as a section of New York City row houses is briefly revealed as nothing more than a façade. A grip from a movie crew briefly steps into the scene and the illusion of reality is shattered.

The exhibition even hits fairly close to home when artist Omer Fast shows us interviews with Colonial-era re-enactors who work in Williamsburg, Va. Fast interviews the subjects, but then deconstructs their answers, chopping some words, melding others and piecing together various fragments of sentences until the subjects oddly begin to seem not like actors, but real-life inhabitants of the early American colony.

Not surprisingly, the O.J. Simpson murder trial also gets its place in this examination of media and public perception. “The Simpson Verdict” by Kota Ezawa focuses on the final three minutes of the trial, when the former football star’s verdict is read. But instead of showing us the plain video footage, which some 150 million people watched live around the world, Ezawa overlays paper cutout graphic animation over the original footage, flattening it out and chromatically reducing the image.

As a result, the participants’ gestures — the brief smile Simpson flashes when the second “not guilty” verdict is read, attorney Johnnie Cochran’s impulse to grab Simpson’s arm in celebration — are brought into sharp emotional relief.

It’s this type of visual mash-ups that make the second part of “The Cinema Effect” a compelling, topical and timely finale to one of the more thought-provoking and amusing modern art exhibitions to grace Washington in years.

The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image / Part II: Realisms through Sept. 7 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Independence Avenue and 7th Street, SW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.