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Hall of Mirrors
by M. Begleiter
"Art and Film since 1945: Hall of Mirrors" at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art offers a labyrinthine survey of cinema and art as they look at each other and at themselves. Curator Kerry Brougher has taken the 100th anniversary of cinema as an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of this symbiotic relationship and has presented a well composed yet narrow framing of the territory.
The title of the show is vast in its implications. "Hall of Mirrors," the provocative subtitle, narrows the scope to Brougher's thesis: that the post-war period is characterized by cinema's new-found ability to open up a self-referential scrutiny and stare unblinkingly at its own reflection. The work of 82 artists and filmmakers culled from an almost boundless pool of possibilities carefully sketches out this premise. It convinces, but within its limited boundaries.
The notion that film only became self-reflective during its second fifty years of existence lays aside work such as Vertov's 1927 Man with a Movie Camera--still looking contemporary with it's use of stop action, jump cuts and the wonderful editing sequence where, just as in Welles' first scene in Citizen Kane, 1941, we watch the action and then, as the cut shifts us to a wider, oblique angle, we become aware of our position as spectators watching a film. But certainly, these examples grow more frequent as the decades pass and now even Arnold Schwarzenegger can make the self-parodying Last Action Hero, 1993, even if he can't sell the concept of a self-aware movie idol to his illusion-loving audience.
Space and Spectatorship
Rather than being led through this show by numbered rooms and chambers, you are encouraged to create your own unique pattern through its series of open halls, screening rooms and catwalks. The spectator's role here is an active one as you walk around dark enclosures, climb stairs and push aside curtains to view the assembled works. The film, video, painting, photography and installation works are encountered in a random sequence, rather than a more traditional, linear chronology. Cinema is formally linear. We are the passive receivers of a line of images and sounds that perpetually repeat themselves in the same pattern. By structuring our receivership of the exhibit outside the cinematic norm, Brougher stakes his territory as being unbound by the form of narrative cinema, but rather, of a broader, less restrictive plane.
You enter the cavernous space of the temporary Contemporary by descending a flight of stairs into a black-walled corridor that fans out into multiple passageways. There are projectors whirling away to the side, from above and in the unseen corners of the museum. The technical apparatus creating the pulsating light and moving the strips of celluloid is prominently on display, constantly referring the spectator to the world behind the illusion. Fabio Mauri's without ideology, 1976, series incorporates the projector as object; Michael Snow's two sides to every story, 1974, uses multiple projectors in a theatrical screen-in-the-round setting; Warhol's Empire, 1964, blazes away in its entirety while its projector is on a pedestal, enshrined.
The Reflecting Pool
As you descend upon the main floor of the museum you are met by a Muybridge-esque series of photographs, sixteen studies from vegetable Locomotion, 1975, by Hollis Frampton and Marion Faller. This contemporary nod to the 19th century precursor of motion pictures plays with the history of cinema with still imagery, while taking full advantage of the rupture of the time/space continuum to surreptitiously remove the veggies in the "instant" between each frame.
We are then offered increasingly more somber fare as the cinema of 1945 to the present is represented primarily by art work created from 1965 onward. The '40s and early '50s are given a minimal presence with the boxes of Joseph Cornell, photos of Ouija, and the dusty evil-eye backdrop designed by Dali for Hitchcock's Vertigo. There are a few films from the era being screened during the week (among them, Fritz Lang's Scarlett Street), but most films from this first decade appear, frustratingly, in excerpt form only.
Once we enter the late '50s and '60s, the selection broadens, for there are far more examples that strongly support Brougher's thesis--Diane Arbus's late '50s shots of audiences along with Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (again, only an excerpt); Warhol's silkscreened canvasses of Marilyn's lips and face and Mimmo Rotellas's collage of ripped Marilyn posters (but no Monroe film is on the screening list). The original imagery is absent, only the representation of the representation is present.
Some specific works shine in the context of this gathering. Sharon Lockhart's still prints of adolescent auditions connect to both the making and viewing of the filmed moment in a complex and eerily ambiguous manner. Cindy Bernard's ask the dust series, 1990-91, in which she has (re)photographed movie locations, resonates in a way inconceivable without the surrounding celluloid. Hiroshi Sugimoto's 1993 series of black and white photos of movie house screens and interiors take on an additional church-like glow when shown with Raul Ruiz's "All the Evil in Men...," 1992, an installation incorporating church pews, video projection and monastic cells, which speaks to cinema's power to evoke and evade contemplative states.
Jeff Wall's "Eviction Struggle," 1988, is in a crucial position, both on the floor and in the concept of this show. His large-scale translucent cibachrome has the breadth of historical painting while the installation of monitors on the reverse side shows video loops corresponding to nine subjective viewpoints. An eviction moment is caught in a still frame (the space of art), while the eviction sequence constantly plays out from different angles (the time of Cinema), unviewable at the same moment.
Which Way the Gaze?
The question that surfaces at this point is, why does the gaze only point from art to film? If the premise relates to art and film, why not include the films which use not only the artistic form as inspiration, but also the artistic process as subject of the narrative? In one screening room we have excerpts from filmmakers that have used the compositional structure of the tableau. This formal element is borrowed and is elegantly demonstrated by excerpts which include films by Greenaway, Kurosawa, Lynch, Antonioni, and Tarkovsky, to name just a handful of the great filmmakers thus represented. But why then exclude cinema's observation of art-making?
In the same vein, why exclude art made by filmmakers? The paintings of Kurosawa, the drawings of Lynch or the installation work of Greenaway would create a broader dialogue. Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is seen as fair game, but Altman's Vincent and Theo or Alec Guiness's adaptation of Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth are out of bounds. The van Gogh sequence from Kurosawa's dreams appears in excerpt, but again, for its formal use of art-related composition rather than story. The uncomfortable interpretation here is that movie-making is seen as somehow a poor cousin to art in telling the story of their interaction. Although you cannot doubt Brougher's vision and commitment to his enterprise, the exhibit is presented in art's temple, and the gaze seems focused in one direction--down from the pulpit.
Brougher has created his own work. Not the history of art and film since 1945, but a history. He marks the beginning of the end with the emergence of self-reflection seen in films such as Sunset Boulevard, 1950, Fellini's 8 1/2, 1963, and Godard's Contempt, 1963. Once the "golden age" of the studio-powered movies had past he senses that "its evolution had crested, its power to create myths exposed..." -1. This equates cinema with myth-making, when it was primarily Hollywood that took on that burden.
Perhaps cinema has simply passed through its childhood--when dictatorial studio patriarchs were needed--and come into a searching adolescence. This ambitious, rambling exhibit gives the impression that we may have past a crest, but one also lies ahead.
1- Brougher, Kerry, "Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors." Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 1996. p. 31
Los Angeles, California
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