Friday, February 15, 2008
"Dreams," the stunning show that opened yesterday at the Hirshhorn Museum, is like nothing you've ever seen in a museum. Its 21 works of moving-picture art -- part of an ambitious Hirshhorn project called "The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image" -- are strung along a dark labyrinth of rooms. The installation perfectly captures that magic moment of potential when the lights go down in movieland and anything can happen.
Sometimes you witness a nightmare. In a piece called "Release," German artist Christophe Girardet takes a few seconds of casual terror from the original 1933 "King Kong" -- from the moment when a bound Fay Wray first spots the ape -- and drags them out ad infinitum. Like a DJ scratching endless variations from a single passage in a classic track, Girardet takes these bare instants from the classic film and makes them jitter and shudder in the darkened gallery.
The famous scream is drawn out into an endless, ear-piercing gurgle. A few frames from the original scene in which Wray's pelvis pushes forward are repeated and transformed into a drawn-out moment of raw sex, as her pelvis thrusts and thrusts and thrusts. At one point in Girardet's 9 1/2 -minute loop, Wray's whole body is made to twitch like a puppet on a string; at another, it's given a quick tremble, like a poisoned animal in its death throes. One way or another, all this sex and death and torture is there in the original footage, but the mainstream narrative devices in "King Kong" carry us along, through the horror and beyond it.
"Release" brings that latent dread to the surface and makes its power clear, the way a dream can take what ought to be a trivial frustration and reveal its true psychic weight -- serving up a boss whose ears have disappeared.
The exhibition also includes long-drawn-out moments of peaceable beauty, such as we're more likely to encounter in dreams than in waking life. (I remember having a dream when I was 7 that was so unutterably, everlastingly gorgeous that I faked my way to staying home from school, in the hopes of falling back to sleep and into that same dream.) Andy Warhol's "Sleep," a 5 1/2 -hour movie he made in 1963, is the oldest work in this show. Its almost-static footage simply shows the naked body of his paramour, the poet John Giorno, caught in moments of delicious sleep. (Only two hours' worth of "Sleep," transferred to video, is included in the exhibition's galleries. The whole film will be screened in the Hirshhorn auditorium on April 6 at noon.)
A normal movie, like normal waking life, is not allowed to dwell and dwell and dwell on the beauty found in it. It can only deal with beauty in the barest snippets before moving on to something else. Warhol's moving-picture art has the permission to wallow in its subject's beauty, and extends that permission to its viewers.
But it's not only the beauty that matters in this Warhol; it's also the sheer wallowing. It's saying that movies don't have to lead you forward in a cliched narrative arc. "Sleep" insists that there are other things that films can do as well -- that their rules are made to be broken, and that only by breaking them can you understand the way that you've been governed by them all along.
Dreams are where the normal rules of reality break down and anything becomes possible. The kind of moving-picture artworks featured in this show are the dreams of movieland. They're where the rules and cliches of standard filmmaking get picked apart, and even fail.
Several pieces in the show invite us to observe as movie worlds are born. "Rheinmetall/Victoria 8," a strangely compelling installation by Vancouver artist Rodney Graham, plunks a huge 1950s film projector -- a 35mm "Victoria 8" -- down beside us in the gallery. We then watch as it unspools a somewhat sentimental portrait of a shiny Rheinmetall typewriter from the 1930s: The camera runs caressingly across the shiny deco body of the machine, then fake snow begins to fall until the typewriter's almost covered in it. An obsolescent piece of technology presents a still-life image of an even more obsolete device -- and still we're touched. Such is the inescapable power of film, which can't be defeated even when we're in on its manipulations.
In a captivating projection by Anthony McCall, there's not even a subject to the film that's shown: It's just a few straight or wavy lines that waltz across the screen. By filling his dark gallery with fog, however, McCall lets us recognize and play inside the cone of light that generates his abstract image. We become the ghost in the machine of cinema, and take pleasure haunting it.
Warhol's "Sleep" is the first film in the show, and its title and subject make it a kind of talisman for the entire exhibition. But the fact that it's about sleep is almost beside the point. The same artist's "Empire" -- one eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building -- would have done the job as well. What matters most is the act of dishing up an alternate reality to the ones that Hollywood presents. When it works best, this exhibition takes the "Dream" in its title as a metaphor. It stands for a place, any place, beyond the normal. Which means that it's also a metaphor for what art, in general, can do to shake things up. Art is to our culture's standard imagery -- including the imagery of film -- what a dream is to waking life.
In fact, the more a work in "Dreams" is explicitly about dreaming, the less potent it is. When a piece is made to look the way we imagine a dream looking, it rarely offers the escape a true dream does. A psychedelic cartoon such as "City Glow" by Chiho Aoshima, full of trees bearing severed heads and skyscrapers that crawl across the screen like caterpillars, ends up looking more like a dream sequence from a Hollywood movie than like what really goes on inside your mind at night. Which also makes it feel more like a mainstream commodity than like truly probing art.