Writing for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Anthoy McCall, Line Describing a Cone, 1973. Photo credit Jake Naughton for The New York Times, 2016.

A few years ago, while working at a used bookstore, someone sold us a DVD copy of By Brakhage. I vaguely knew of Stan Brakhage and his work, so I stashed the anthology in the back, bought it on my break, and raced home after work to watch it. After about twenty minutes, my excitement faded and I was left feeling underwhelmed. The issue wasn’t the films themselves but rather the setting. Watching experimental film on a boxy 27-inch TV from the 1990s in your parents’ basement isn’t an ideal set-up. The Whitney is the appropriate environment for this kind of avant-garde and experimental film.

With close to forty artists in Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016, selecting a few highlights isn’t easy. Oskar Fischinger’s “Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art)” (1926, restored 2012) is definitely one that shouldn’t be missed. This three-channel projection of colorful shapes and images set to music was one of the earliest multimedia installations of abstract art and predates Disney’s Fantasia–which Fischinger did concept drawings for shortly after leaving Germany for Hollywood in 1936. Another powerful piece is Anthony McCall’s “Line Describing a Cone” (1973). Installed in a nearly pitch-black room with a smoke machine that fills the with a fog, the light from a projector slowly brings the empty space of the room to life as a circle is drawn on the wall and a cone becomes visible connecting the projector and the wall. Lasting ten minutes, a circle is drawn on the wall and a cone becomes visible in the smoky room extending from project to wall. Ben Coonley’s “Trading Futures” (2016) is a 3D video set inside a cardboard geodesic dome. The ‘professor’ in this piece calls on the viewer to actively look around and respond to certain commands–close one eye, now the other–while discussing financial derivative trading.

The Whitney has transformed its fifth floor into a space devoted to charting a course through the twentieth century up to the present in order to explore arthouse cinema, experimental film, and digital video. Dreamlands is successful as an exhibition, but not every work is immersive. In some areas there are sound bleeds, other areas have distracting light creeping in from works across the hall, and some just don’t fit in the physical space. That being said, many works do fully immerse the viewer; they draw you in and keep your attention for twenty-plus minutes. Overall, Dreamlands is a huge success whether you are wandering in off of the street or making a day of it and taking it every moment of immersive cinema presented here. You will get lost in the cinematic experience.