This fall, The Whitney Museum of American Art presents Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016, a landmark exhibition that focuses on the ways in which artists have dismantled and reassembled the conventions of cinema—screen, projection, darkness—to create new experiences of the moving image. The exhibition will fill the Museum’s 18,000-square-foot Neil Bluhm Family Galleries on the fifth floor, as well as the adjacent Kaufman Gallery, and will include a film series in the third-floor Susan and John Hess Family Theater. Dreamlands will be on view from October 28, 2016 through February 5, 2017.
As film historian Tom Gunning writes in his catalogue essay, “What is Cinema? The Challenge of the Moving Image Past and Future”: “Cinema, before it is anything else, before it is a story, a canvas for special effects, a display of the beauty and grace of stars, before it weaves a tissue of ideology or makes us laugh and cry, presents images that move. This is why it was invented, what separates it from the previous arts of depiction, and also what it shares with the torrent of emerging technological media. But this is also what we take for granted in watching movies and other moving-image media.”
The exhibition features works by American artists and filmmakers (including , Trisha Baga, Frances Bodomo, Dora Budor, Ian Cheng, Bruce Conner, Ben Coonley, Joseph Cornell, Andrea Crespo, François Curlet, Alex Da Corte, Oskar Fischinger, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Alex Israel, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem and Pierre Joseph, Aidan Koch, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Anthony McCall, Josiah McElheny, Syd Mead, Lorna Mills, Melik Ohanian, Philippe Parreno, Jenny Perlin, Mathias Poledna, Edwin S. Porter, Oskar Schlemmer, Hito Steyerl, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Stan VanDerBeek, Artie Vierkant, and Jud Yalkut, among others) and also includes a small number of works of German cinema and art from the 1920s with a strong relationship to, and influence on, American art and film. The exhibition, with works spanning from the early 1900s to the present, is the result of four years of intensive scholarly research by curator Iles, involving experts from all corners of the worlds of art and film. It will be the most technologically complex project mounted in the Whitney’s new building to date, embracing a wide range of moving image techniques, from hand-painted film to the latest digital technologies, some of which have been made especially for the exhibition.
The works on view will use color, touch, music, spectacle, light, and darkness to confound our expectations, flattening space through animation and abstraction, or heightening the illusion of three dimensions. Visitors will experience projections, sculptures, and installations that allow them to: walk through projection beams and reams of film stock; watch a video made with a 360-degree camera projected inside the ceiling of a cardboard geodesic dome, and on Oculus Rifts; view concept artwork made for Walt Disney’s Fantasia; view a synesthetic environment in which music is written according to color; see the visual futurist Hollywood designer Syd Mead’s colorful concept artwork for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner shown projected onto screens, creating a sense of the uncanny noir environment of the city; look at the world through 3-D glasses in installations; and step inside the screen and become part of it.
The exhibition is organized into three parts:
1905–1930s: The first part, beginning in 1905 and including a group of works from the 1920s and 1930s, shows some of the earliest experiments with cinematic space, and the way in which sweeping camera shots, abstraction, color, music, and kaleidoscopic space were used to create what Tom Gunning has called a “cinema of attractions,” in which the spectator is jolted out of the conventions of seeing. In a 1968 film reconstruction of Oskar Schlemmer’s classic Triadic Ballet (1922), dancers move across a flattened space of color like animated figures on a screen. In Fischinger’s 1926 work Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art), three screens project abstract color forms, including hypnotic spirals and geometric shapes, to percussive music, creating what Fischinger described as “an intoxication of light.”
1940s–1980s: In the second part of the exhibition, which includes concept artwork from Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) as well as Bruce Conner’s spectacular CROSSROADS (1976), a collage of government film footage depicting atomic test explosions, the idealistic experiments of the previous decades give way to a darker and more fragmented experience of the cinematic. Drawings and watercolors from three key moments of Disney’s immersive sensory fusion of music and image clearly situate Fantasia as both part of the end of the pre-World War II utopian vision for cinema, and the beginning of a new media environment that followed the end of the war and the dropping of the atomic bomb. Projective installations by Jud Yalkut (Destruct Film, 1967) and Anthony McCall (Line Describing a Cone, 1973) detach the screen from its fixed position, dispersing it into a dark space in which the light beam becomes a sculptural form furthering the shift from image to surface that had begun in the 1920s. The simultaneous blurring of the boundary between technology and the human body, epitomized by the science fiction film Blade Runner (1982), can be seen in a group of production design paintings for the film by Syd Mead, specially assembled for the exhibition to reveal the cinematic space of the city as spectacle.
1990S–THE PRESENT: The third part of the exhibition articulates the breadth and complexity of more recent works in which cinematic space has been reassembled into new models by contemporary artists. The relationship between the body and technology has been recalibrated through the touch screen and virtual space, through a continual online exchange of images, visual styles, avatars, anime, and identities. The infinite manipulability of the digital image, now dominated by the graphic, animated form, special effects, and virtual reality, has produced a new visual ecosystem, in which artifice and reality have become versions of each other.
The fear and exhilaration around the idea of the organic living body becoming fused with technological elements, seen in the earliest robotic figures of Oskar Schlemmer, return here in the form of an artificial intelligence persona played by actress Tilda Swinton, who talks to viewers through a mirrored screen and a microphone in the pioneer Lynn Hershman Leeson’s DiNA. In Ian Cheng’s “live simulations,” chat bots projected onto a large screen talk to each other, or to themselves, creating a narrative in a state of perpetual evolution.
Dora Budor’s new sculpture, made for the exhibition, is a large cube-shaped environment, whose shape evokes the Borg Cube from Star Trek. Its interior walls pulse with flickering light triggered by viewers moving through the space, which illuminates the ceiling above, a resin panel inside of which six thousand dead frogs—special effects props used in the film Magnolia (1999)—are suspended above our heads. Also included in the exhibition will be Hito Steyerl’s immersive installation Factory of the Sun, commissioned for the German Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale and shown in New York for the first time here.
“Dreamlands brings together a group of artists whose work articulates the profound shift that has taken place as technology has transitioned the moving image from analog to virtual,” states Curator Chrissie Iles, who is curating the exhibition. “The exhibition’s title refers to the science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft’s alternate fictional dimension, whose terrain of cities, forests, mountains, and an underworld can be visited only through dreams. Similarly, the spaces in Dreamlands connect different historical moments of cinematic experimentation, creating a story that unfolds like a map of dreaming. A series of immersive spaces fracture our assumptions of perspective, the horizon line, and a stable projected image.”
The exhibition will also include a film program, featuring artists and filmmakers from the earliest days of cinema to the most cutting-edge artists working with virtual reality and digital space. A catalogue will be published by the Whitney (distributed by Yale University Press) to accompany the exhibition, including essays by Karen Archey, Giuliana Bruno, John Canemaker, Brian Droitcour, Noam Elcott, Tom Gunning, J. Hoberman, Esther Leslie, David Lewis, and Chrissie Iles.
Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 is sponsored by Audi. Major support is provided by the Dalio Foundation, The Robert Rosenkranz Foundation, and the National Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Additional generous support is provided by Lori Chemla and Catherine Orentreich.