Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film since 1945

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MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

"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 Raul 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. …