Los Angeles

Focus: “Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945”

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

“Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945” must have seemed like a great idea when curator Kerry Brougher began working on the show almost a decade ago. Here was a way to infuse the hushed spaces of the museum with the vitality of popular culture, to draw in the art-shy masses and give them something they couldn’t get at home. The scope of the exhibition is intentionally broad, covering artists from Joseph Cornell to Cindy Sherman, and taking into account both the cinema’s dominant Hollywood mode and its avant-garde tangents. Indeed, the show’s catalogue, edited by Russell Ferguson, does manage to integrate the discourses of art and film rather successfully. Yet walking through the Temporary Contemporary’s huge warehouse of a building is anything but an integrative experience. The paintings, sculptures, video monitors, installations, collages, screening rooms, photographs, drawings, and films never coalesce into a show, much less an argument. There are isolated moments of pleasure and recognition, but the intertext of film and visual art is left largely unelucidated.

One reason that “Hall of Mirrors” ends up being such an arid historical exercise is that the relationship between the art world and the cinema isn’t what it used to be. Those interested in technological media tend toward video, Web sites, or CD-ROMs rather than celluloid. “Film culture” (which incorporates but is not confined to sitting around and talking about movies as if they really mattered) has deteriorated to the point that Susan Sontag pronounces upon the death of cinephilia in The New York Times Magazine. In the manner of MoMA’s much lamented “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” 1990–91, “Hall of Mirrors” dredges up the embarrassingly familiar hierarchy that valorizes art, while reducing everything else—in this case, film—to grist for its mill. This approach manifests itself in various ways, some more insidious than others. For one, Tony Conrad’s hyper-aggressive 16-millimeter assault, The Flicker, 1966, suffers from being screened in an inadequately defined space that is so brightly lit, the film’s signature effects are all but invisible. With disastrous consequences, two works were shown in rooms inadequately baffled for sound: Derek Jarman’s meditative Blue, 1993, which relies on an intricate aural texture to counterpoise its monochromatic projection, and Stan Douglas’ Overture, 1986, a careful imbrication of early cinema and Proustian voice-over. One could chalk up such a failure to technical difficulties beyond the curator’s control, except that it is symptomatic of a much larger one: the exhibition’s inability to grapple with the spatial, aural, and temporal qualities inherent to cinema. This show blithely recasts the motion picture as still image, presumably because in that form film fits more easily into the museum context. Projected above the entrance to the show, Andy Warhol’s intentionally—and epochally—boring silent film, Empire, 1964, is stripped of its most salient feature, its durational character, and the movie becomes as static as a slide projection. The impassive expanse of the Empire State Building confronts the oversized projector that generates it; film and apparatus become pure atmosphere, just another part of the exhibition’s set design.

The designers of this show should have heeded Blaise Pascal’s epigram, incorporated into the otherwise banal 1992 Rail Ruiz installation included in this exhibition: “All the evil in men comes from one thing alone: their inability to remain at rest in a room.” It is not merely the aural and visual tumult of the show, but our acculturation to the rituals of museum-going that make it virtually impossible to view the films included in “Hall of Mirrors” as they were meant to be. Film is on display here, reduced to a series of clips, formal conceits, or evidentiary fragments.

It is in this sense that “Hall of Mirrors” denies the essence of the filmic, eliding the distinctions between the cinematic and the televisual. There are video screens throughout the show, which function as mnemonic triggers and dynamic wall texts, but never as movies, so that video, however unintentionally, becomes the medium under interrogation. Alfred Hitchcock gets the Blockbuster superstore treatment, with snippets of Rear Window, 1954, and Spellbound, 1945, that signify but do not embody the narrative perversity and visual lushness of those films. Warhol defined the televisual age as one in which we are bored and hyper at the same time. “Hall of Mirrors” is too often a hall of monitors, and the result is a kind of spatialized channel surfing, the fragmentation engendered by the triumph of the remote control.

If discontinuity defines the televisual, it is ritualized narrative that has shaped Hollywood cinema. Stories—narrative structures, characterizations, genres both rigid and supple—made the movies a mass medium. To ask an exhibition to capture this aspect of film is perhaps unfair, but the show’s ambitions are so broad as to demand a strict accounting. In a show that embraces Pop, Hollywood’s stars rather than the narratives that spawned them are given center stage. Take the most thanapoptic of such cults: Marilyn Monroe. Dispersed through the vast reaches of the converted parking garage that is the Temporary Contemporary are seemingly innumerable riffs on America’s most iconic sex symbol: Mimmo Rotella’s shredded poster collage, Marilyn Monroe, 1963; Richard Hamilton’s erased and crossed-out collage, My Marilyn, 1965; Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida’s multimedia slide show QUASI-CINEMA, Block Experiments in Cosmococa, CC3 MAILERYN, 1973; Weegee’s photograph of Marilyn Monroe on an Elephant (ca. 1953); Ray Johnson’s Hand Marilyn Monroe, 1958; and, of course, Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe’s Lips and Twenty-five Colored Marilyns (both 1962). Encountering these disparate Marilyns is fascinating, but what is unique about movie stars, as opposed to the fashion models who constitute our latest cultural fetish, is that actors achieve immortality in and through their roles. They aren’t merely posing. In “Hall of Mirrors,” the only Marilyn is a dead Marilyn, stripped of that voice, that walk, and that carefully scripted vulnerability.

When narrative does enter, it’s as the victim of what Christian Metz called “epistomophilic sadism.” (Lepidopterists are the emblematic epistomophilic sadists; they are so ardent in their quest for knowledge of butterflies that they pierce them with pins and mount them on boards.) Ten years after the vogue for Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and Barthes ran its course in film studies, it has returned here in the form of institutional didacticism. Theories about the centrality of voyeurism, the dissolution of the centered subject, and the instability of gender roles may be well served by clips from Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1959), Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1982) and Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984), but once again, video excerpts strip the films from the larger contexts of narrative and genre that determine their visual language.

Just as the image of Marilyn Monroe seems to be everywhere in the show, Hitchcock is an ubiquitous presence. Yet, as we listen to Christian Marclay’s CD Vertigo (Soundtrack for an exhibition), 1990, puzzle over Cindy Bernard’s emptied vista of the Golden Gate Bridge in Ask the Dust: Vertigo (1958/1990), 1990, and scan Victor Burgin’s The Bridge, 1984, a six-part series of framed images and texts (which themselves are hyperbolic masterpieces of post-Structuralist discourse), the Hitchcock who emerges is less the master of suspense than the object of theoretical mastery. “Hall of Mirrors” leaves any notion of untheorized narrative pleasure to the multiplex, and more’s the pity.

Given its difficulty with stories, “Hall of Mirrors” is on steadier ground with the non-narrative, structuralist phase of avant-garde cinema. Every day, the exhibition’s central theater shows a selection of major avant-garde achievements. Brougher deserves credit for creating this cinémathèque, which, given the woeful lack of familiarity that most museum patrons have with the work of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Paul Sharits, serves as a kind of archaeology of ’60s and early ’70s experimental film. Also notable is Michael Snow’s installation Two Sides to Every Story, 1974—a single screen, dual-sided projection piece—that forces spectators to constantly readjust their positions, dissolving the boundaries between two- and three-dimensional representation to create a unique kind of space. Perhaps the show’s most inspired presentation is the one devoted to the work of Austrian artist and filmmaker Peter Kubelka. His flicker film Arnulf Rainer, 1958–60, is screened every afternoon; nearby, Kubelka’s diagrammatic notes for the work are presented in vitrines; and the 35-millimeter print of Rainer is on constant display, having been cut into equal strips, and pinned to the wall, to form a celluloid rectangle. Kubelka creates a tripartite system that explores the tensions between the phenomenological and the structural: the dynamic yet fleeting images of the projection play off the static presentations of the film first as an unrealized concept and then as a reified object. In the ’90s, when the most interesting computer-generated work seems to aspire to the condition of avant-garde cinema without quite realizing it, the latter’s conceptual complexity and attention to the constraints of practice are particularly instructive.

There are other reasons to see the show. Ray Johnson’s Shirley Temple, 1958, is a tiny piece—just the little moppet’s silhouette inside a homespun, cardboard collage—but it demonstrates how Hollywood invades our imaginary, forcing us to fill in even the emptiest of signifiers. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s stark 1993 photographs of drive-ins and theaters may be emotionally distant from Johnson’s pre-Pop collages, but Sugimoto does capture the wonder of those spaces first built for narrative cinema. Both elegiac and vulgar, Chris Marker’s Silent Movie, 1994–95, a tower of steel posts, airplane cable, laser-disc players, and video monitors, celebrates the singular way in which film eroticizes not just the face, but also the gesture. Marker’s techno-aggressive piece should have been exemplary; this tame show too rarely allows the rude energy of the movies to burst through.

Peter Lunenfeld is the founder of mediawork: The Southern California New Media Working Group, and editor of The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media, forthcoming from the MIT Press. He is a member of the graduate faculty of Art Center College of Design, Pasadena.

“Hall of Mirrors” can be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, until 28 July 1996, and at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, from 21 September 1996 to 5 January 1997. It then travels to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.