When the movie camera emerged around the turn of the 20th century, it quickly became the miracle that never stopped giving. It attracted scientists, the news industry and entertainers. It generated its own forms of commerce, wealth and celebrity and, for a while, inspired its own architecture, the luxurious movie palace. It was itself the focus of constant innovation, from the advent of sound, color and 3-D, to digitalization, which let smartphones and other devices incorporate both filmless cameras and small screens — hand-held movie palaces. And from the very beginning, creative people of all types grasped the cinema as an artistic outlet that would transform traditional storytelling and popular culture while giving a new focus to the international avant-garde. That group soon set about taking liberties with all aspects of the miracle: the camera, film and projector and the ways they could be manipulated to alter experiences of time, light, space and self.
Stan VanDerBeek’s “Movie Mural” (1968). CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
The interaction of art and cinema throughout the 20th and 21st centuries progresses fitfully across “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016,” an ambitious sprawl of an exhibition that has taken over the Whitney Museum of American Art’s vast fifth floor — a space whose flexibility is once more impressively demonstrated.
Beautifully designed, with generous corridors, the show avoids being a daunting succession of black boxes, although the sound is not well balanced, and quieter works, many displayed on wall monitors in the halls, can be drowned out. It is informative, filled with diverse pleasures, rewards hours of viewing time and reflects a commitment to film in all of its forms maintained by no other New York museum. But making it all cohere is another thing.
“Easternsports” by Alex Da Corte, which includes monologues and dialogues by Jayson Musson.CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
“Dreamlands” presents the work of more than 30 artists born between 1870 and 1993, starting off strong and then unraveling. It includes a handful of avant-garde films made before 1930; a slightly larger group from 1940-80, especially the 1960s and ’70s. But a majority of works date from 2000 and are often arcane, ineffective or not especially innovative.
In the catalog, the Whitney curator Chrissie Iles, who organized the show, sees her inclusions as dismantling the cinematic givens of “projection, apparatus, film, the frontal rectangular screen, darkness, immobility, cinematography, linear narrative” to give priority to “the senses, the eye, immersive space, the body and the all-surrounding image.”
A visitor watching Jud Yakult’s “Destruct Film” (1967). CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
How often the work achieves this may depend on your definition of immersive. As mine is probably somewhat literal, stressing the disorienting, body-enveloping, all-surrounding kind, I was often disappointed. There simply weren’t enough strong examples. There was almost no reference to video games or virtual reality, arguably the most immersive of recent developments. It took me a while to see that Ms. Iles defines immersive with more nuance to include concentration and psychic absorption, some of it achieved in old-fashioned frontal rectangular formats, or in very intimate terms. That’s signaled by Joseph Cornell’s “Rose Hobart” (1936), a mesmerizing, 20-minute blue-tinted version — no larger than a small painting — of only those parts of the Hollywood movie “East of Borneo” that feature its female lead.
“Dreamlands” starts with a bang: a 1977 film re-creation of Oskar Schlemmer’s “Triadic Ballet” (1922), all blaring music, marionette choreography and bright bulbous costumes that turn the dancers into toys. Initially presented in a theater on a monochrome boxlike stage, it has the projecting intensity of a modernist, almost abstract film.
On the wall, a 1977 film recreation of Oskar Schlemmer’s 1922 “Triadic Ballet.” Credit: Jake Naughton for The New York Times
Nearby the short “Coney Island at Night,” from 1905 by Edwin S. Porter, presents the classic dyad of film: the play of light against dark. It is captured in the wedding-cake filigree of the fairground’s dark structures elaborately trimmed in lights. It still thrills and feels new, proving perhaps that beauty — and celluloid? — is always alive. After that comes “SpaceLightArt,” a triptych from 1926 by the great Oskar Fischinger, an artisanal wizard who made abstract color films. He used strips of clay and swirled liquids that alternately evoke computers and the cosmos, and they were combined with music in environments he staged in interwar Berlin, pursuing, he said, “a happening of the soul, of the eyes.” In 1936, he relocated to Hollywood and worked for Disney, drawing designs for “Fantasia” that were never used. Some are included here and equally reflect his visionary instincts.
Film’s light-dark pairing recurs throughout the show, including in Anthony McCall’s “Line Describing a Cone” (1973), an installation that progressively outlines a circle on the wall that, when complete, gives the projector’s white cone of light a startling tangibility (with the help of some atmospheric haze). Next door is Bruce Conner’s “Crossroads,” from 1976, a symphonic ode, in grisaille, to the beauty and horror of the 1946 underwater nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific; its overwhelming scale is by definition immersive. Farther along, Frances Bodomo’s enchanting “Afronauts” of 2014, a D.I.Y. 13-minute film based on the true story of some citizens of the newly independent Zambia who decided in 1969 to try to beat the United States to the moon. Here, black and white merge into lunar silver.
Among other immersive high points is Stan VanDerBeek’s “Movie Mural” (1968), a floor-to-ceiling massing of slide and film projections with the scale of a walk-by drive-in movie. The result is a jumping, roiling collage that’s both crazed and encyclopedic.
Although it is something of a period piece, Jud Yalkut’s “Destruct Film,” from 1967, deserves mention as the show’s most physical environment: Its floor is strewn with pieces of film (walk on them, handle them, hold them to the light), while its walls blink with projected movies that include the Fluxus deities Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik in performance.
Frances Bodomo’s “Afronauts.” CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
Two recent pieces meet the show’s immersive billing with fairly total environments. Hito Steyerl’s brilliant, Tron-like “Factory of the Sun” was a hit at the 2015 Venice Biennale. It weaves together corporate malfeasance, international intrigue and an astounding hip-hop stylist, and was partly shot at a ruined American listening station in Berlin, a satire edged in ominousness in the era of fake news.
Alex Da Corte’s three-hour “Easternsports,” an elaborate surround of four videos, adds robotic performers to his over-the-top arrangements of banal products. Meanwhile, a series of brilliant monologues and dialogues, by the artist Jayson Musson and rendered mostly as subtitles, rove sardonically through art, life, spirituality and the lack of it.
Anthony McCall’s 1973 installation “Line Describing a Cone.” CreditJake Naughton for The New York Times
Among the pieces descending from Cornell’s intimism, I recommend Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Room of One’s Own,” a miniature installation whose tiny screens feature a woman confronting either a male intruder or the male gaze in general. And Terence Broad’s “Blade Runner — Autoencoded,” which immerses Ridley Scott’s film in its own cloudy, prismatic atmosphere, leaves the dialogue as the primary tracking device.
Some works don’t seem developed; others are just impenetrable mind games. Mathias Poledna’s “Imitation of Life,” a meticulous creation from scratch of a Disney-style animation with a singing donkey, is both homage and conceptual joke, but mainly virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
Ms. Iles is one of the most skillful, erudite and ambitious curators in her field, but “Dreamlands” seems confused by her desire to accommodate both a large viewing audience and also to reach a smaller, more informed in crowd. On the side of such specialization, she has included all of the AnnLee videos. Those started in 2000, when the French artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno bought rights to a Japanese manga character, named her AnnLee, made short videos about her, then invited other artists to do likewise.
The nine resulting videos are united here, appearing throughout the show, usually compromised by ambient noise. Seeing them together reveals their sameness: Most artists didn’t move beyond AnnLee’s minimally depicted, passive-waif persona and endless self-reference. (Is it by chance that one of AnnLee’s homonyms is ennui?) She is filled in only by Melik Ohanian, who gives her physical solidity and dance moves, and especially by Liam Gillick, who turns her into a gleaming 3-D goth vixen who sets off electrical storms wherever she goes. She promises less to immerse than to bury us.