From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari through the Andy Warhol factory to the various para-cinematic performances included in the current “Shadow Play” series at the American Museum of the Moving Image, film avant-gardists have traditionally advanced by returning to their medium’s primitive origins. In this sense, it’s an abandoned future that’s been excavated on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum as “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977.”
Pop art is forever with us, but the machine-oriented installations that have been lovingly reassembled at the Whitney seem nearly as remote as the stone calendars the Mayans built to read the stars. Some 75 years after the Lumière brothers first demonstrated their cinematograph in a Paris café, a half-century after Soviet futurists began incorporating little films in their theater pieces, two decades after television transformed every living room in America into the equivalent of an old movie revival house, a number of vanguard visual artists brought 16mm film technology to Soho galleries. Most were not filmmakers—although their taste for high concept and visceral effect linked them to the avant-garde tendency then known as structural film.
In some ways, such innocence is refreshing. The first piece most visitors to “Into the Light” will see is Dennis Oppenheim’s 1973 Echo—an empty room featuring the shamelessly and effectively decorative projection of four outsized hands, each slapping one of the gallery walls. Why not call it Poltergeist? Similarly, if to less splashy effect, Bruce Nauman’s 1970 Spinning Spheres—showing in its original 16mm—projects four rotating ball-bearings on each side of the room. At times, it’s almost possible to catch a reflection.
Echo and Spinning Spheres are proudly dematerialized. For “real” artists like Oppenheim and Nauman, presence is usually more important than perception. Doing away with static painting does not mean immersing yourself in the stuff of motion pictures. Paul Sharits’s 1975 Shutter Interface, by contrast, is a rapt celebration of the motion picture apparatus. One of the few structural filmmakers to have any sort of art-world career, Sharits has achieved one of the most beautiful pieces in the show—projecting overlapping color fields to create a varying stroboscopic flicker.
The New York Times curtain-raiser that ran some Sundays back misleadingly heralded “Into the Light” under the headline “Video Prophets Who Foretold Innovations” and placed it under the sign of Marcel Duchamp in that “everything and anything can be turned into art.” Prophetic or no, it’s the camera that’s the key technology here—as it was for Duchamp’s objet trouvé—and less the video monitor than the motion picture projector. The video pieces are largely devoted to the production of virtual reality: In ascending order of complexity, Yoko Ono’s 1966 Sky TV is a sort of minimalist Weather Channel that telecasts the heavens outside, William Anastasi’s 1968 Free Will blocks an actual corner with a monitor broadcasting its video representation, and Gary Hill’s 1974 Hole in the Wall documents the creation of the niche where its monitor is presently wedged. (Robert Whitman’s 1964 Shower, which projects a filmed nude behind a cascade of water in a real bath stall, has been transferred from its original 16mm to video.)
There are also several examples of “pure” video. Keith Sonnier’s 1972 Channel Mix might be considered a new way to watch television, combining as it does four “live” broadcasts in split-screen projections. (The effect is the equivalent of a found Rosenquist “billboard.”) Peter Campus’s 1977 aen uses a surveillance camera to project an inverted image of anyone entering its room. The effect is deeply uninteresting—a not dissimilar installation by Michael Snow (shown recently at the White Box gallery) at least allowed male visitors of a certain age to ponder the state of the hair atop their heads.
A few of the Whitney installations could be considered narrative pieces. The most complicated of these is Vito Acconci’s 1974 Other Voices for a Second Sight, an audiovisual cacophony that suggests a cubist version of the old Jean Shepherd show, broadcast from a haunted radio station; the most classical is Beryl Korot’s Dachau 1974, a four-channel “map” of the Nazi concentration camp site and present-day tourist attraction. There is also Andy Warhol’s double-screen projection Lupe (1965). As a dazed Edie Sedgwick represents Latina movie star Lupe Velez, who committed suicide in the early 1940s, so this movie stands in for Warhol’s far superior video-film “conversation,” Outer and Inner Space.
In general, narrative seems misplaced here. Rather than sit still for any of the installations, it’s far more satisfying to experience the show as a series of celestial events—you can drift through the rooms several times, checking on the progress of the most ingenious contraptions for measuring time and casting light. In Michael Snow’s 1974 conundrum, Two Sides to Every Story, a young woman in an eye-catching white satin blouse walks back and forth between two cameras—her two images are cast on opposite sides of a suspended metallic screen. A pair of corresponding images are projected on opposite walls in Dan Graham’s 1973 Helix/Spiral, a less glamorous exploration of the same phenomenon. Graham’s piece is a dance for two handheld cameras—it’s abstract Cassavetes with the respective operators flailing around as they film each other over their shoulders or behind their backs.
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.
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.”