"A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!" The lurid poster for Bwana Devil, the 1952 adventure film starring man-eating lions and touted as the world's first movie made in "Natural Vision 3 Dimension," launched the 3-D movie craze of the 1950s.
The film industry was in decline as audiences lounged happily at home in front of their new TV sets, and 3-D promised to lure them back to the theaters. The novelty didn't do much for the film industry at the time, but it did ruin 3-D for many artists, tainting the technology with its emphasis on crass spectacle and gimmickry.
Hollywood has embraced 3-D again, with blockbusters from Avatar to the latest Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, and more directors are trying to use the technology to create a new language of cinema.
But what about 3-D in the art world? A few intrepid artists, such as Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren and Ken Jacobs, have used the technology in decades past. The directing team Encyclopedia Pictura used it for Björk's experimental "Wanderlust" music video. But 3-D hasn't really taken hold in the world of video installations.
Media artist Marco Brambilla may change all that with his show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, currently home to two of his 3-D video projections as part of a larger solo exhibition titled "The Dark Lining."
Those two 3-D works, Civilization (Megaplex) and Evolution (Megaplex), are scrolling, baroque landscapes, each with such florid detail that repeated viewing with concentrated scrutiny is required. The three-minute Civilization tackles heaven and hell in a dazzling vertical video tapestry reminiscent of 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Evolution, also a three-minute loop, samples and remixes some of Hollywood's most bombastic moments, with each minisequence either popping out at you or drawing you into some vertigo-inducing spiral. Glancing around, you see Dirty Harry striding purposefully into the gallery space as rockets catapult over your head. Characters from dozens of movies, including Star Wars and Apocalypse Now, writhe in a huge landscape, with Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet as the soundtrack. In this context, 3-D adds spectacle to spectacle, and the result is simply dazzling.
Brambilla, whose background includes directing commercials, the 1993 feature Demolition Man and the video for Kanye West's song "Power," says he decided to switch to 3-D halfway through his work on Evolution, just as Hollywood itself was returning to the format.
But he opted to take the technology in a different direction. "Evolution doesn't seek to duplicate the realism of 3-D films in Hollywood, where they're trying to make it feel like you're actually there," he says.
His goal instead is to create a far more stylized 3-D experience, to comment on the vacuity and interchangeability of so many contemporary movies. "There is no emotional connection," he explains. "There is no narrative arc. There is no character development. None of the kind of formulas that would go into making a feature film are applied here. It's more associative."
Other artists share Brambilla's disdain for Hollywood's attempt to use 3-D to create realism. "When you discover it, on the one hand, you think it's something incredibly realistic," muses Perry Hoberman, an artist and professor who has taught 3-D for animation and interactive media at USC. "But then you realize it's not about realism at all. It's more that it's just kind of magical. ... 3-D is still used as icing to make something sweeter or richer."
New York–based artist Zoe Beloff also avoids using the technology for realism in "The Somnambulists," which includes a 3-D projection and is on view through May 29 at the Velaslavasay Panorama . She points out that 3-D began before cinema with stereoscopic imagery, which is the combination of two slightly offset images to create the illusion of depth when viewed through handheld viewers, which were patented in 1838. Beloff's work ties stereoscopic imagery to other 19th-century fascinations, including dioramas and magic tricks. "I'm interested in 3-D as part of the suspension of disbelief, and what that has to do with other illusions," she says.
Ray Zone, an L.A.-based historian, author and 3-D expert, notes that 3-D has caused 21st-century audiences and storytellers in many forms of media to return to the 19th-century fascination with depth. He cites the recent release of the Sprint Evo 3-D cellphone, in which images seem to float off the screen, and Nintendo's 3-DS handheld gaming system."Because of the digital tools — and these tool sets are becoming easier to use — it will be a given that if you are creating visual content for any of the display forms that exist, then there is no reason not to make it in stereoscopic form," he says.
Video installations could follow suit, as these new tools and software programs make it easier for non-Hollywood-funded artists to create 3-D works. For Evolution, Brambilla made a series of virtual cards onto which he projected individual video loops. Then he set up virtual stereoscopic cameras that navigated through this landscape.
The exhibit's goal, he says, is to exaggerate the intensity of your typical museum experience. "We designed it to be slightly mazelike, so you're drawn into a space with a piece that's very contemplative, and then it gets slightly more aggressive and more aggressive, and then it ends with the epic crescendo of the last two [3-D] pieces."
Indeed, the show opens with a split-screen video installation titled Sea of Tranquility, a relatively calm time-lapse video showing the 1969 Apollo moon landing. It moves on to more visceral pieces, such as Sync, an aggressive three-screen project with looping sequences of tangled bodies fighting and having sex, and HalfLife (Surveillance Channel), showing the eerily calm faces of young gamers alongside the violence in HalfLife, the well-known science fiction shoot-'em-up video game.
Walking through dark passageways and into the flickering rooms that make up Brambilla's exhibition is like visiting a smartly designed carnival where each sideshow has a pointed critique that makes us question what we're enjoying and why.
At the end of the maze we find ourselves sandwiched between two 3-D projects that are at once affectionate celebrations of cinema and its wonderful bombast, and biting critiques of contemporary storytelling. On one side of the frenzied display, the Terminator is silhouetted against an explosion that fills the room with fiery meteors; on the other, E.T. pedals toward heaven. We stand in the middle, plastic glasses perched on our noses, in awe as pop culture icons are elevated to epic and sublime grandeur.
MARCO BRAMBILLA: THE DARK LINING | Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through Aug. 20