As an exhibition, the Whitney’s “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016” is a real disappointer. Its premise is unwieldy, unfocused: to trace the ways in which moving-image technologies have changed how artists present (and represent) their visions of the world — and/but/also, how inside of works of art and cinema here deemed “immersive,” these visions, where applicable, reflect a changing attitude toward the human body and an understanding of the Self. (I think I got it all in there.) The result is a cacophonous, confusing jumble sale of 38 artists, with an additional 71 included in an ancillary film program. “This isn’t a show about cinema,” writes curator Chrissie Iles in “The Cyborg and the Sensorium,” her essay that accompanies the exhibition. So why bring up cinema at all, let alone put it in the title? As it turns out, “Dreamlands” might say more about the fact that, no matter how new technologies dazzle the eye and inflate human pride, artistic innovation is altogether something else.
The earliest works featured here are eternal crowd-pleasers, and there will never not be a reason to go and see them. These are moving images spun from wonder, passion, obsession. It was Joseph Cornell’s infatuation with a B-list Hollywood ingénue that propelled him to produce the sensitive and sensual Rose Hobart in 1936, the first found-footage film in American cinema, which he edited together from clips he cut from a copy of her 1931 film East of Borneo. (Why it is screened digitally here, and not via film projector, and why Cornell’s soundtrack — two songs he would play from Nestor Amaral’s Holiday in Brazil — has been left out isn’t clear.) The HD reconstruction of Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst (1926/2012) is a hypnotic animated triptych that locks the eye into a dance with shapes, colors, and percussive rhythms. Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone of 1973, for which the artist animated a line drawing of a circle and projected the result on film inside a pitch-black room, is always a highlight, being at once a work of cinematic art and a phantom thereof.
It’s interesting that “Dreamlands” shares a problem with the New Museum’s 2016 show “The Keeper,” which staged a then-and-now (and a now-as-then) retrospective of artists-as-collectors: When compared to that of their predecessors, much of the work of contemporary artists in the exhibition can seem light, even disingenuous, calculated rather than dreamt or imagined. This isn’t the effect of nostalgia. There is, decidedly, a different flash point to younger makers’ fuel that appears to ignite around a selfie-consciousness and a taut professionalism. Art is broadly considered to be a mirror of a moment, but relevance isn’t inherently a virtue — and these days, it’s more often than not just an easy sales point.
Take Alex Israel’s insipid Sky Backdrop (2016), an epic painting of a radiant sky at sunset that hangs opposite one of the Whitney’s grand windows overlooking the Hudson. The concept is a one-liner: Israel hired a Hollywood scenic painter to execute the work at an aspect ratio that mimics that of CinemaScope. (Note that that artist is uncredited here — a canned Factory move that should, in these times, be rethought by artists everywhere.) To watch visitors take selfies and otheries in front of a camera-ready imitation of sky is certainly one of the work’s ham-fisted points — how droll — but in the end, the experience simply offers too little in the way of vision, literally and figuratively. (That too may be part of its point, but it holds minimal purchase with this viewer.)
For Ways of Something, net.art artist Lorna Mills invited 113 digital artists to create new visual material to be laid over audio tracks stripped from John Berger’s 1972 BBC television series, Ways of Seeing. (Berger sadly passed away in early January at the age of ninety.) The program was a landmark in visual culture, the great art critic giving lessons in the ways in which Western art produces meaning. The exhibition posits Mills’s piece as a critique of Berger’s “now-dated thesis,” yet the dynamic between the critic’s ideas and the artists’ moving images isn’t as razor-edged as that. In some moments, the tone is downright silly, for instance when we hear Berger meditating on the silence of paintings as we watch a collaged animation of an emaciated blue alien walking toward camera, surrounded by origami-ish forms flying against a cityscape. Hm.
A few minutes later, Berger’s reading of Pieter Bruegel’s Northern Renaissance masterwork The Procession to Calvary is given a clever treatment. “The meaning of a painting shown on film or television can be changed even more radically,” we hear as we watch the unseen hand of a digital artist altering the painting, compositing into the landscape a highway, a Santa Claus, and a hot-air balloon — the perfect metaphor, perhaps, for wonders propelled by hot air. The sum total of Ways of Something is witty and charming, to be sure, but attempting to trump the past with the present — buoying the relevance of one’s own media and ideas with the revelation that history is dated — isn’t exactly feast for thought.
In this exhibition, it’s the mighty Hito Steyerl who gives the Now its most impressive depths. Her 2015 installation Factory of the Sun is part rabbit hole, part fever dream, delineating both the spaces and the slippages between the virtual and the real worlds. Inside a room designed to look like a motion-capture studio, the artist presents an eye-searing video that winds around drones, YouTube dance stars, video games, and political defense rhetoric. THIS IS NOT A GAME, Steyerl reminds us via bold lines of text that appear onscreen. THIS IS REALITY. Ironic how the space of dreams is also the space of nightmares — and terrifying how the two are so equally seductive.