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LACMA's exhibition 'Sculpt': Incoherent pretension for an audience of one

LACMA's exhibition 'Sculpt': Incoherent pretension for an audience of one
Loris Greaud's installation design for his movie "Sculpt," which screens to one viewer at a time in LACMA's Bing Theater. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

"Sculpt," a 50-minute film by French Conceptual artist Loris Gréaud, is the latest event program in contemporary art offered by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Event programs are appointment-only exhibitions of a single, immersive work designed for a limited audience. "Rain Room" — a chamber of perpetually falling water that can be experienced by about a dozen visitors at a time — is one familiar example, constructed by the London design-group Random International. On Tuesday, it was joined at LACMA by "Sculpt," a film screening daily in the museum's Bing Theater.

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If you've been to the Bing, you know it comfortably seats 600 people. "Sculpt," though, is meant for viewing by one person at a time. (A free reservation is required.) Five rows of seats have been partially removed from the middle of the vast room, leaving one lone seat smack in the center.

No closing date for "Sculpt" has yet been announced, but with four to six screenings daily, a maximum of 29 visitors can experience Gréaud's film each week. It's just as well. "Sculpt" is pretentious and uninvolving.

A privileged viewer is escorted into the darkened hall by a museum guard, who also explains that no photographs are allowed. After seating, the event begins with a bright red spotlight trained from the proscenium onto the lone viewer.

The spotlight is the room's only illumination, save for 14 crimson exit signs that ring the hall. It recalls the red "record" button on a camera or DVR.

I am a camera with its shutter open, as Christopher Isherwood wrote in 1939. What we are about to see is indeed episodic, like Isherwood's tales of Berlin, if not nearly as incisive.

The movie starts with nearly abstract images that appear to be webs of nerve tissue. As the spotlight dims and the film begins, every frame glows as crimson as the spotlight, as if we are being taken to the edge of the visible spectrum.

Soon we are signaled that we're entering dangerous territory, meant to be seeing beyond normal vision. How? Because a couple of naked young women have been bound with straps and suspended in shadowy space, strung up from the ceiling like passive slabs of meat.

To salve any doubts about the intended gravity of this unhappily banal bit of clichéd sexploitation, an unidentified man is shown lolling about the dim chamber, anguished head in hands, and periodically examining the women in bondage. The mystery fiend is played by lovably weird character actor Willem Dafoe.

I almost laughed out loud, embarrassed by the sight. Admission to Gréaud's film is restricted to adults (and a similar caution should apply to the trailer, below), but that's no guarantee.

I suppose the art museum is also being likened here to a red-light district, a quasi-safe public space where ordinary desire and fierce obsession might collide. The onscreen imagery is tethered to the solitary viewer sitting out there in the dark — alone, as if in a stately peep show. LACMA's Bing Theater is our Moulin Rouge.

"Sculpt" has no narrative. Our experience is instead being shaped — sculpted — by an evocative if incoherent flow of illumined images skittering by.

Think Ellen Burstyn suffering amphetamine psychosis in "Requiem for a Dream," the grueling 2000 Hollywood psychodrama, although without the subjective camera work. Or a compilation of outtakes from "American Horror Story" on FX. A portentous score by the venerable, quasi-anonymous art-band the Residents plays behind layers of prattle, both spoken and in projected subtitles.

We witness bleary drug-induced hallucination, obscure voodoo ritual, watery bayous draped in Spanish moss, lurking personifications of Death and Satan, a smoky Bangkok-style strip club, billowing exhaust from a rocket launch, an empty opera-house interior and more. Fashion model Betty Catroux, actress Charlotte Rampling, the late architect Claude Parent and others turn up, although none does much of anything.

Like Dafoe, they're floating signs of ruin — Catroux an enigmatic artist's muse, Rampling an icon from Visconti's "The Damned," Parent an advocate for an architecture of destabilized battlements.

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In effect, it's a 50-minute "Coming Attraction" for something that never arrives. The drifting black-and-red scenography concludes with our eyeballs slipping inside the confined chamber of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine — that psychologically claustrophobic medical miracle built for looking at hidden entrails deep within. Interior nerve tissue from the opening frames is brought full circle.

Gréaud's "Sculpt" loosely recalls various cinematic precedents — "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943), Maya Deren's Surrealist-slippage of experiential reality; Bruce Conner's great montage of found film, "A Movie" (1958), plus his sculptural dance-film, "Breakaway" (1966); various pop-psychodramas by erotic-occultist Kenneth Anger, including his epic "Lucifer Rising" (1966-72), and more. They rivet, while "Sculpt" just sort of passes by, idly yakking, until it ends.

All art is experience, as John Dewey explained long ago. Given hyper-limited seating, this cinematic experience will mostly exist as word of mouth. Between "Rain Room" and a movie-for-one, LACMA has doubled down on event programming of an overproduced, undernourished sort.

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Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Closed Wednesdays. (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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