Demented but Rewarding

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Moving Images Create Creepy Consciousness at Hirshhorn

Walking into the Hirshhorn Museum’s new exhibition, “The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image,” is a lot like stumbling into someone’s creepy dream.

Dark, disorienting and a bit demented, the exhibition uses projection and film to create a sort of parallel consciousness. Though strange and at times uncomfortable, it’s also rewarding. The first of two parts, the current display is aptly subtitled “Dreams.”

According to the exhibition material, this first section “addresses film’s ability to transport viewers out of their everyday lives into states that lie between wakefulness and sleep, sending them on journeys into the darker recesses of the imagination.”

Following on the theme of how “the cinematic” impacts our perceptions, the second part of the exhibition, “Realisms” (which runs June 19 to Sept. 7), examines how documenting “real life” has been made easier with the advent of moving image formats, which at the same time have ironically blurred the line between fact and fiction.

“Today, the cinema is everywhere,” said Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn’s acting director and chief curator. “It is on television, your computer screen, projected onto buildings, and carried around with you on your iPod. The cinematic is in the way we perceive the world, in the way we speak, in the way we dream. We have no need to enter a movie theater to escape into an illusory world; life itself is just like a movie.”

And the Hirshhorn has certainly brought that movie to life. The surreal tour opens with a red backlit curtain, giving viewers a chance to actually “enter” the exhibition, or step into the movie. The soft billowy curtain, a 1998 work by Douglas Gordon titled “Off Screen,” invites us in and hints at the transforming experience ahead.

Darkened hallways are illuminated only by faint, neon-green arrows that point the way from one dreamscape to the next. Among the first—and most obvious—images one encounters is Andy Warhol’s famous film “Sleep,” a six-hour reel of poet John Giorno, who was his lover at the time. Showing nothing but Giorno sleeping, the film captures the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest—as if preparing our minds for the meditative pieces that follow.

From there, the exhibition gains in complexity. Grainy footage of mid-20th-century American family life on the farm hearkens to a more simple time. The wholesome images do indeed seem dreamlike when compared to today’s irreversible age of technology and terrorism.

Rodney Graham’s installation of an archaic Victoria 8 film projector—a massive relic of steel gears, knobs and pulleys—projects an image of yet another relic onto a darkened wall: the Rheinmetall typewriter, itself made obsolete by cinematic technology.

The exhibition’s first words are spoken by an odd, disjointed head attached to a puppet-like body. Tony Oursler’s “Switch” projects the face of David Bowie (I didn’t realize it was him until I asked) onto a small orb. The animated puppet spews pseudo-philosophy—something about all of us being in the same place at the same time and the meaning of it all—but most of us are transfixed by the image, not the words.

Another entrancing image is that of Fay Wray, the iconic heroine of the original “King Kong” movie who is seen here suspended in a repetitive, herky-jerky freeze frame captured at the precise moment that she first sees the beast. The very image of terror, Wray’s lithe, beautiful body vibrates so violently that it morphs into something grotesque. Dreams, as we know, have a way of turning the familiar into the foreign.

The exhibition’s fan favorite is undoubtedly Anthony McCall’s “You and I, Horizontal.” McCall invites us to actually be in his film as a single pinpoint of light from a small projector in the back casts geometric shapes onto a black wall. Standing in the midst of the projection, one can alter the images and step into a mesmerizing funnel of light.

Kelly Richardson’s “Exiles of the Shattered Star” transports us to an idyllic mountain landscape, where birds chirp while hundreds of flaming pieces of something—the sky itself perhaps—plunge into a placid lake. If this is the apocalypse, it sure is beautiful.

As part of a series of animated pieces, Chiho Aoshima dazzles with a depiction of an Atlantis-like world. Skyscrapers with eyes sway in the undulating waves, before morphing into plants and other images. The imagery evokes some of the haunting animated flower visuals from Pink Floyd’s landmark rock ‘n’ roll film “The Wall.”

Finally, as natural light returns toward the end of the exhibit, a stunning video focuses our attention on the rushing waves of Niagara Falls. The image of a natural landscape pulls us back into the real world, but the dreamy beginning is only steps away as the circular shape of the Hirshhorn itself casts us out just steps from the exhibition’s entrance.

The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image / Part I: Dreams through May 11 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

Last Edited on November 29, 1999