Celestial Events

Clunky in its execution and comically inexorable in its sweep, Robert Morris's 1969 Finch College Project (remade in 2001) places a rotating 16mm projector in the center of the room so that it casts the moving image of another, strategically mirrored room, which has been filmed by a panning camera. Where these pieces might once have suggested the triumph of the machine, what's far more apparent these days is the fragility of the technology. (When I revisited "Into the Light" a week after the press preview, the Snow installation was under repair and Lupe was down to a single screen.)

The simplest, more evanescent, and poignant work in the show is Anthony McCall's 1973 Line Describing a Cone. In this half-hour piece, hidden in the back of the exhibit, the motion-picture film is used less for photographic representation than as a means to sculpt the beam thrown by the projector. As the outline of a circle is slowly inscribed on a black screen, the curved shaft of light that casts that image expands in a cone—its shape accentuated by suspended dust particles and the subtle fog that is pumped into the room.

Watching McCall's movie, one watches the gradual transformation of the projector beam as one might an eclipse. To add to the effect, the various imperfections that fleck the film base send out split-second rays that explode like shooting stars. Conceptually elegant and perfectly executed, Line Describing a Cone turns the Lumière apparatus—designed to have a cone describe a plane—in on itself. It's a transcendent tribute to a technology acutely aware of its own impending obsolescence.

Why not call it Poltergeist? Dennis Oppenheim’s Echo (1973)
photo: Whitney Museum
Why not call it Poltergeist? Dennis Oppenheim’s Echo (1973)

Details

Into The Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977
Whitney Museum
Through January 6

Shadow Play: Avant-Garde Views of Early Cinema
American Museum of the Moving Image
Through November 18

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If the filmmaker Ken Jacobs is conspicuously absent from the Whitney show, it's because for the last 25 years or so, this brilliantly inventive artist has used projected light for performances rather than installations. Happily, a number of Jacobs pieces have been included in "Shadow Play," the current series at the Museum of the Moving Image—which might almost have been conceived to complement the Whitney show.

Many of Jacobs's pieces involve an apparatus he calls the Nervous System. Running identical footage inch by inch, and slightly out of phase, through a pair of interlocked projectors that are fronted by a large, propeller-like shutter, Jacobs transforms the celluloid action into a hypnotically stroboscopic twitch. No two performances are the same, nor is the effect constant—at times, the machine creates the illusion of a shallow, three-dimensional space. On November 9, Jacobs will be applying the Nervous System to the already swarming 1903 Edison short New York Ghetto Fish Market, as well as an even earlier Lumière film in which the camera traverses a Paris street. (The same material, alternated right side up and upside down, is the basis for Jacobs's 1990 film Opening the 19th Century—also on the bill.)

The series continues Sunday and runs through next weekend. Other programs include avant-garde films by Leslie Thornton and Bill Brand that incorporate or elaborate on primitive cinema, a stereoscopic slide performance by Zoe Beloff and Ken Montgomery inspired by Edison's proposed invention for communicating with the dead, and a number of documentaries. Among the latter are Wim Wenders's tribute to German film pioneers Max and Emil Skladanowsky, Werner Nekes's catalog of magic lanterns and other precinematic toys, and Thom Andersen's essay on the serial photographer Eadweard Muybridge. As Jacobs once said of the man who became obsessed with documenting animal locomotion, "Advanced filmmaking leads to Muybridge."

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