Newsletter Spring 2017

Reality is Irrelevant: Dreamlands at the Whitney Museum

Laila Kouri
Cohort ’16

There is something to be said for growing up surrounded by Art; it is both a privilege and a curse. The negative side is there is the potential to become jaded. The magical allure of the art world loses its mystery, and I find myself thinking, have I really seen it all? But there is hope. Every now and then, I will stumble across a show that challenges me to my core. That is what happened when I stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor at the Whitney Museum and into the exhibition, “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905- 2016.”

Organized by Chrissie Iles and Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, Dreamlands forced me out of the traditional role of viewer and into that of an active participant in the work. I truly felt as though I was in a lucid dream—all of my senses were engaged. The culmination of simultaneous experiences drew attention to not only the exhibition’s visual flow, but also to the internal dialogue occurring between my subconscious and conscious mind. Alex Israel, an artist known for painting skyscapes for movie sets, had one of his works looking out of the museum’s actual windows.

Sky Backdrop, 2016, Alex Israel. Photo by Allen Olson-Urtecho

Sky Backdrop, 2016, Alex Israel. Photo by Allen Olson-Urtecho

This spatial subversion caused Israel’s cinema-inspired work to appear as if it was ‘looking’ into a mirror. The duo, Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson, created a stage-like installation organized through video projections. Freestanding walls depicted a surreal narrative of coinciding banality: people organizing cleaning products while a man on a skateboard gracefully pushed wood from ramp to ramp, or wall to wall, conceptually tying the whole work together like a bow.

Easternsports, 2014, Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson. Photo by Laila Kouri

Easternsports, 2014, Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson. Photo by Laila Kouri

Easternsports, 2014, Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson. Photo by Laila Kouri

Easternsports, 2014, Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson. Photo by Laila Kouri

Was I supposed to remain behind the wall? Or, was I allowed to walk on the carpet and become an extension of the piece? As I struggled with this conundrum, a man interrupted my internal argument and casually stepped past me and onto the carpet, distorting the projection with his shadow.

Hito Steyerl created my favorite work of all: an installation that mimicked the set of a motion-capture studio, complete with lawn chairs to sink into while watching the absurdity unfold. Normally I don't enjoy watching video games, I'd rather be playing them, but this was different. I was engaged beyond my own envy and slipped into a trance.

Factory of The Sun, 2015, Hito Steyerl. Photo by Laila Kouri

Factory of The Sun, 2015, Hito Steyerl. Photo by Laila Kouri

I felt more comfortable in Steyerl’s hyperreality then I had been all day walking around New York City. There was something oddly satisfying about being engrossed in the simulated alternate reality; most likely due to all those hours spent playing Xbox as a child. It created a sense of nostalgia and I found myself sitting for what felt like an eternity before remembering that I was actually in a museum. 

That is why Dreamlands is so inspiring. Nothing is as simple as it appeared and it is clearly meant for more than just tech-interested people trying to reinvent the wheel. The point of the exhibition was to create a dialogue between the past and the present, and to challenge the viewer’s perception of what is real. The verdict? For Dreamlands, reality seems irrelevant.