Sunday, December 4, 2016

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

“Line Describing a Cone” (1973) by Anthony McCall. Photo credit Jake Naughton for The New York Times.
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.


  1. You're review is very good at hitting the over all feeling of the exhibit, while also focusing in on specific pieces in the show. There were a couple of grammatical errors I would watch out for. And also, since you started out with a paragraph of a memory of viewing one of the works in a space that did not do it justice it would be cool to hear about your experience seeing it in the Whitney and why that was a better space for it to be viewed, even if just in a quick sentence.

  2. I wasn’t quite sure where you were headed with the opening paragraph, but the resolution makes a concrete point – this installation succeeds most where immersion is paramount. I’m really glad you singled-out “Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art)” and “Line Describing a Cone”. I found these two to be the most captivating, and noticed larger groups of people stopping and really soaking them in. After introducing “Line Describing a Cone” it seems like you were working through two variations on explaining the piece, but forgot to delete one or didn’t commit fully. Your piece has a great flow, but this section slowed it down, which was more noticeable because of the proficiency in the rest of the review.

  3. I really liked your review. I think the first paragraph is particularly engaging and sets the stage for why the reader should go see this show. You continue on to describe certain works with such clever detail that I feel like I'm back at the show.
    If any part of your review could be improved, it would be the final paragraph. You state that not every work is immersive, but you do not tell the reader why they should care about that. You go on to say that their are distracting problems, but the show is a massive success. Your review could be improved by altering the tone of the final paragraph. As it is currently written, it is rather contradictory.