Art review: 'Marco Brambilla: The Dark Lining' at Santa Monica Museum of Art
"Sea of Tranquility," the hypnotizing single-channel video at the start of the Marco Brambilla survey exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is and isn't what its title says. A dramatic, silvery landscape does show the famous broad plain of that name on the Earth's moon; to see it, however, leaves a viewer anything but tranquil.
The Sea of Tranquility is the site where Apollo 11, the American manned lunar module, touched down in July 1969. The first time Earth-bound humans stepped onto another natural satellite, the event also marked the climax of the furious "space race" between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Brambilla's three-minute computer-generated video is a time-lapse study of the landing craft, the Eagle, and the American flag that the crew planted beside it. The artist started with an image first broadcast on television, removed voices from the original radio transmissions to create a crackling soundtrack of static, beeps and buzzes, then compressed time to show the Eagle and the flag disintegrating into rubble and tatters. Days, even years, zoom by in speeding flashes of traveling sunlight.
This gorgeously aestheticized picture of natural decay is overlaid with poignant spiritual reverberations -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- while speaking of socio-cultural transformations as well. An astounding human accomplishment goes to rack and ruin, as surely as the Parthenon fell from breathtaking utilitarian grace into a poetic shambles.
Brambilla is a Romantic poet here, as obsessed with wreckage as Wordsworth and Shelley were in writing, or Piranesi and J.M.W. Turner in pictures.
The Apollo 11 moon landing, claimed by deniers to be an elaborate hoax shot at a studio back lot with incriminating evidence carefully destroyed, is a famous modern template for now ubiquitous denials of truth -- evolution, global climate-change, a certain presidential birth certificate, etc. To watch Brambilla's video is to witness profound beauty and simple verity unravel into topsy-turvy confusion and chaos.
Milan-born, L.A.-based Brambilla, 50, knows something about movies, having directed the 1993 science fiction hit, "Demolition Man," set in an apocalyptic Southern California four decades into the future. (The museum show is titled "The Dark Lining," which suggests some troublesome tarnish within that silvery screen.) Film reviewers took careful note of the film's presumed recycling of earlier movie conventions -- common enough for popular culture, and which Brambilla effectively exploits in his art.
The most obvious examples are in the last room of the show, ably organized by curator Lisa Melandri. Two wall-size, stereoscopic 3-D extravaganzas face each other, accompanied by a driving, melodramatic soundtrack engineered from Igor Stravinsky's dissonant 1913 exercise in pagan rhythms, "The Rite of Spring."
The conceptual hinge is of course Disney's 1940 animated "Fantasia," a wacky effort at making high art safe for a mass audience. (The movie included a comeback role for a faded fictional star, Mickey Mouse.) It featured cinema's first stereo soundtrack, a multichannel method brought up to date by Brambilla's use of currently fashionable 3-D technology.
Yes, special glasses are required for viewing. The videos ramp up a nod to contemporary kitsch into marvelous hysteria. Viewers get a visual assault loosely approaching "A Clockwork Orange," with its infamous Ludovico Technique for forced visual intake of unspeakable mayhem.
An ascension from hell to heaven is composed from more than 300 channels of looped imagery clipped and woven from genre movies, creating the continuous vertical scroll of "Civilization (Megaplex)." Across the room, a cinematic epic of human history, limned in outsized terms of Hollywood sex and violence, unfurls horizontally for "Evolution (Megaplex)." Each moving mural runs in a continuous three-minute loop -- long enough to pull in a slack-jawed viewer, short enough to allow for closer scrutiny of the densely packed projections.
Sampling on steroids, it's a high-tech version of the Pop magazine clippings of Richard Hamilton or the occult collages made from book engravings by Jess Collins. Colossal visions on the order of "The Last Judgment" underpin the action, told in the punier persons of Conan the Barbarian, "Showgirls," Han Solo, Mighty Joe Young, Gandhi, "Ghost Busters," Dirty Harry and more, including an anonymous cast of thousands.
Rather than a young girl dancing herself to death, as "The Rite of Spring" displayed, or Disney's pageant of prehistoric life, Brambilla's tours de force show a young culture -- ours -- amusing itself into an oblivion worthy of the eye-popping medieval tortures of Hieronymus Bosch. The famous (and sometimes questioned) audience riot that accompanied the first performance of Stravinsky's music is unthinkable today -- except, perhaps, as an extravagantly cruel, ideologically driven culture war played out in shouting television pictures on 24-hour cable news.
A few of this compact survey's seven works are thin. "Cathedral" runs scenes of an engorged shopping mall at Christmas-time through an electronic kaleidoscope, making a glittery stained-glass window from conspicuous consumption. "Half Life" juxtaposes the violent action of a virtual reality video-game with the passive, staring faces of youthful gamers playing it. Both works supply pictures for a too-familiar cliché.
But others snap your head around. Among the best is the percussive "Sync (Watch)," 103 seconds of rapid-cut movie sex, violence and theater-audience reaction shots. One-third of a larger triptych, the brief video-assault conveys a complete story arc: Individuals become crowds, then become individuals again.
A display of audience horror is followed by tears, laughter, applause, laughter and tears once more, as if an entire life has been lived, birth to death, in one minute and 43 seconds. The imagery is often squalid and sometimes nutty. Like Elias Canetti, whose incisive book about modern dystopia, "Crowds and Power," portrayed society as a mass pathology, Brambilla is also perversely funny. (The title "Sync," after all, is a layered pun.) His carefully manufactured movie experience also fabricates its audience.
"Marco Brambilla: The Dark Lining," Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, (310) 586-6488, through AUg. 20. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.smmoa.org
— Christopher Knight
Photos: Marco Brambilla, "The Sea of Tranquility," 2006, video excerpt and frame-sequence stills; "Civilization," 2008, video stills (Hell) (Heaven) and video excerpt; photo credit: Santa Monica Museum of Art