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by Sidney Lawrence
"The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image, Part I -- Dreams," Feb. 14-May 11, 2008, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. 20013.

If you’re the type of person who likes to go to the multiplex and spend all day sneaking into one movie after another, then "The Cinema Effect" is for you. With a variety of film, digital and video works by 20 artists spread through the Hirshhorn’s donut-shaped labyrinth of darkened galleries, there’s plenty to see -- some of it more animated than the rest.

Visitors can clown around, for instance, with New York artist Tony Oursler’s comically confrontational video doll, featuring the goateed face of rock star David Bowie, a friend and collaborator of the artist’s, in part of an installation from 1996 titled Switch. "You there, with the shirt, why are you looking at me?" asks the snide sculpture of no one in particular. A ten-year-old in the gallery understands participatory art, answering, "Because you are fake!" The Oursler is riveting.   

By contrast, Pop maestro Andy Warhol’s iconic, five-hour film Sleep (1963), here condensed to a 100-minute-long DVD, is dull by design. The highlight comes midway through, when the stubbly, dark-haired guy turns onto his back. It’s hard to imagine that Warhol, the guy who gave us super-charged media images, began his career with such Zen-like proto-Minimalist exercises. In a word, it’s snoozarific.

The first part of a two-part show, "The Cinema Effect" begins with "Dreams," an investigation into the fairly obvious ability that film has to transport us into an imaginary world. The current exhibition is followed this summer by "Realisms," an exploration of film’s tendency to elide fiction and fact. Conceived by Hirshhorn acting director Kerry Brougher, the project reflects a world irrevocably altered by YouTube, the iPhone and all those other revolutionary digital gadgets.

In his catalogue introduction, Brougher cites Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Sci-fi noir film Alphaville as a harbinger for this brave new world. In that movie, the American-born actor Eddie Constantine plays a detective who sets out to destroy the computer that rules Alphaville, where people endlessly rehearse and enact clichéd movie scenarios, fusing illusion and reality so completely that everything becomes meaningless. Today’s glut of moving-image options, Brougher concludes, has made "life itself. . . just like a movie." 

As it happens, movies and reality have one thing in common -- they can be a mixed bag, and so it goes with "contemporary moving-image art," as the Hirshhorn dubs the genre. While some works in this "Dreams" segment are incredibly energizing, others are amazingly tiresome. For the sake of space and civility, let’s focus on the more user-friendly pieces, and leave the rest to their thin ideas and droning voices.   

Berlin-based Czech artist Harun Farocki’s multi-monitor floor piece in the lobby outside the show, Workers Leaving a Factory in Eleven Decades (1995-2000), tempts film buffs with a century of brief clips. Among these are a 42-second Lumiere brothers documentary introducing the medium (1899), scenes of marching laborers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), a chic working-class Monica Vitti surveying toxic waste in Michelangelo Antonioni’s color-coded Red Desert (1964), and a plain-jane Bjork in poignant vignettes outside a factory with Catherine Deneuve and Peter Stormare in Lars Van Trier’s digital musical, Dancer in the Dark (2000).

Farocki’s work, which has headphones for the six clips with sound, can be responded to on many levels -- as cinema history, as a meditation on the evolution of industrialized society, as an examination of what makes a good movie, etc. Most of all, it neatly puts 20th-century moviemaking into a time capsule, suggesting that, in the digital age, it is all but obsolete.

The entrance to "The Cinema Effect" proper has been ingeniously crafted to resemble a cinematic fantasy, courtesy of Off Screen (1998), a work by the New York-based Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, which provides a properly dramatic entrance to the show -- a large theatrical curtain, backlit with an orange glow and invoking the old-time movie palaces where Hollywood’s "Dream Factory" once held sway. A label encourages viewers to pass through the break in the curtain, where they can make a shadow play for those on the other side. Families seem to love the interactive possibilities of the piece, but most everyone else just stays put. For all its fun-house possibilities, Gordon’s piece is also something of a structuralist proposition about the elements of film.

In a comfy mini-theater several galleries ahead, two black-and-white shorts by the San Francisco-based artist Bruce Conner get squarely into the show’s theme. Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977) and Valse Triste (1979), each about five minutes long and featuring montages of found photographs, offer glimpses of mid-20th-century nostalgia, accompanied by natural sounds as well as musical accompaniment that includes a soothing Sibelius waltz (often, à la Godard, at odds with the noises that one would expect from the images).

Fusing the folksy feel of a WPA documentary with the cold-war queasiness of a Twilight Zone episode, the footage includes imagery of sheep in a paddock, a farm family, thunder clouds, a slo-mo bloom of a flower and waterdrop, college girls exercising, a ‘40s runway model, a Beaver Cleaver-like boy asleep, a gargantuan steaming locomotive, a rocket contrail, a girl bouncing a ball, a boulder falling into water and more, with no logic but a sense of flashback, intuition and fantasy. It’s all vaguely erotic and intellectual, like a French New Wave film, but funky and mellow like you’d expect from a Bay Area beatnik. Conner, a maverick in many mediums, here moves past his blink-of-an-eye A-Bomb and dance-frenzy shorts of the early ‘60s. 

More challenging is the entry from Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, whose Bear (1993) is a nine-minute-long, murky black-and-white film of a wrestling match-love dance between two black men, one being the Amsterdam-based artist. Bear was the first film to gain McQueen wide note in the art world, and one can see why. What begins with a basic action-film motif -- the fight sequence -- is here taken from the realm of cliché and made into something that is both more realistic and more iconic.

Experienced in a standing-room-only, claustrophobically small gallery where larger-than-life faces and bodies project onto a wall, the piece is deeply discomfiting. The struggle has no beginning or ending, nor any of the typical back-and-forth that characterizes ritual conflict. Rather, come-hither smiles precede a bear hug followed by aggressive, grimacing, sweaty, flesh-to-flesh conflict, some of it filmed from below, including see-all crotches and genitalia. (At this point, parents usher the kids out -- wrong Steve McQueen movie.) In one memorable shot, a wrestler’s face makes a prolonged, silent swoon as if in orgasm. Parallels Warhol’s Blow Job are unavoidable.

Both esthetic and symbolic, gay and hetero, hostile and loving, physical and theoretical, McQueen’s Bear definitely hits a nerve or two. It’s a road that has been traveled by Michelangelo, Courbet or Eakins -- so the guy is in good company.

But the show’s tour-de-force nightmare portrays a woman. Release (1996), by the Hanover and New York-based German artist Christoph Girardet, shows Fay Wray in giant-sized close-up, during the moments that she awakens on the native altar to encounter her captor, King Kong, in the 1933 film. Strung up by her arms, the computer-syncopated actress huffs, puffs and writhes as if in sexual heat, barks like a terrified dog, fades into exhaustion, wakes up to let out the famous screeching scream, and starts up all over again. A strange, rhythmic sound like buzzing hornets at high volume accompanies this bizarre ballet, which never once shows the giant gorilla.

Girardet stretches this brief scene (combining a clip and outtakes) with a masterful musical assurance that is suggestive of the improvisational mode of vinyl-scratch Hip Hop. He reins in the terror with a near still image, then speeds and repeats, re-repeats and slows down, suddenly goes into high volume, rips your brain apart, and then drops to stillness again. You don’t know or care when or if the 9:30-minute loop begins or ends. A paradigm of Expressionism, it is more terrifying than Edvard Munch’s The Scream.   

Tokyo-based Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima’s woozily psychedelic City Glow (2005), on the other hand, is rather upbeat. Shifting the mood of the exhibition and supplying its first bit of digital animation, the seven-minute piece presents a day in the life of a city across five plasma screens, in a gently evolving panorama related to her murals at the 14th Street subway station in New York.

Of all the Kaikai Kiki anime experts, Aoshima is easily the most seductive, and her flat, layered style of streaming animation is as captivating as the storyline. Thumb-shaped phallic skyscrapers à la Jean Nouvel, with Doe-eyed Japanese animé faces, undulate, sway and flirt like jellified Betty Boops. Meanwhile, a lush garden park in the foreground undergoes a constant, ever-unfolding photosynthesis recalling such drug funfests of the 1960s as Yellow Submarine. Music is tinkly, magical, full of animal sounds and ready to accommodate any mood change, which is to say Disney-esque.

Soon elegantly stylized clouds from classic Japanese prints move across the sky. A rainstorm begins, and the garden becomes a bubbling aquarium with fish and marine plants. Birds, butterflies and winged fairies re-appear with the sun, and when night falls, gravestones and animé ghouls haunt the garden, but not too threateningly, for like an old Hollywood movie, there is a happy ending: dawn breaks, a Peter Max rainbow appears, and it’s time to start all over again.

Aoshima’s piece manages to transform the over-the-top, aggressively developing, inhuman mega-city of today -- a Shanghai, Dubai or Tokyo -- into something happy and habitable. It’s a hallucination with a message.

Being a film, Exiles of the Shattered Star (2006), by the Canadian-born, British-based artist Kelly Richardson (she lives in Gateshead, near Newcastle) seems almost old-fashioned by comparison. It depicts the first light of dawn streaming onto an arrestingly peaceful local landscape and lake, which is surrealistically hit by a rain of fireballs from the sky. Accompanied by vivid nature sounds, this wall-sized, somewhat Viola-esque piece presents an imperiled earth and humanity’s folly, e.g. the Locherbie airplane disaster of 1988, as suggested, in the catalogue, by co-curator Kelly Gordon.  

The metaphor is promising, but the piece loses its power after awhile. The fireballs create no ripples in the lake. In their repetition, lacking that special effect, they lose the viewer’s respectful attention. A Frederick Edwin Church sunrise might have held me longer -- no special effects, just paint. 

Philadelphia-based artist Michael Bell-Smith’s digital Up and Away (2006), on the other hand, is nearly impossible to walk away from. In this 6:40-minute small-screen fantasy, tile-like depictions of brilliantly colored cities, monuments, landscapes, skies and seas stream down like slot machine icons, align, create a vignette, and then sweep away like an elevator on an infinite ride downwards.

The speedy vertical kaleidoscope is as alive and familiar as it is alien and artificial -- hitting the show’s illusion-reality dichotomy just right. But more than a theme is put into play here. Perception gets a run for its money as well. Do you ever lie on the ground, look up at fast-moving clouds, and feel the earth rotate? That comes close to describing the sensation engendered by this piece. The Bell-Smith can make you think the Hirshhorn is actually levitating!   

Chances are the outside world won’t replicate this experience. Life imitates art too imperfectly. It’s like a movie, but only sometimes. 

SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and critic living in Washington, D.C. A traveling exhibition for which he is guest curator, "Roger Brown: Southern Exposure," recently opened at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans.