Video artist Marco Brambilla knows that some people will see his decision to go 3-D as a marketing gimmick. "It is meant to get attention," he says. "When you walk into the gallery and characters start coming off the walls, it feels otherworldly."
But he also sees the 3-D format as a natural fit for his recent work — which is all about the visual excesses of Hollywood moviemaking and the sped-up consumer culture that goes with it. Once a mainstream film director himself, best known for the 1993 action movie "Demolition Man," Brambilla is not afraid to use the tricks of the trade in his museum and gallery work. And he is now using 3-D technology to add another dimension to his hyperactive, super-saturated, collage-style video artworks made exclusively of film clips.
"My desire was to present the most epic human themes in a way as immediate and bombastic as possible, seeing them all through a pop culture lens," says Brambilla, 50, based in New York. "In my piece 'Civilization' it's the story of Dante's Inferno, the spiritual journey from hell to heaven. In 'Evolution' it's a narrative about conflict throughout the ages."
Both works will be on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art starting Saturday as part of "The Dark Lining," Brambilla's first museum survey. It's the first public screening of "Evolution (Megaplex)," which debuted at a private party during Art Basel Miami Beach in December. It's also one of the first 3-D viewings of "Civilization (Megaplex)," the video introduced at Christopher Grimes Gallery in Santa Monica in 2008 that has since found a permanent home in an elevator at the Standard Hotel in New York.
These two works are clearly designed to be the pièce de résistance of the show, facing off in a large gallery at the back of the museum. They are blockbusters made of blockbusters, packed with apocalyptic imagery of floods, war, fire, and over-populated with characters such as Dirty Harry and King Kong integrated rather seamlessly within a single frame. But the show also includes a handful of earlier, 2-D videos that also reflects his fascination with spectacle.
"In a lot of his work Marco has walked a line very purposefully between celebration and critique," says Santa Monica Museum of Art curator Lisa Melandri, naming consumerism and popular culture as ongoing subjects. "You can come at it from a 'wow, this is gorgeous' angle or walk away thinking 'Oh my God, this is what we've become.'"
More entertaining than a lot of video art, this work is "not at all didactic," she adds. "The hope is that the beauty that sucks you in can lead you to be thoughtful about the content."
Born in Italy but raised from age 10 in Canada, Brambilla got his start making commercials while still in high school in Toronto. He worked his way up to more ambitious projects, landing a million-dollar job making a Canadian television spot for Pepsi. Then, at 29, he was hired to direct his first feature film, "Demolition Man," starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes and Sandra Bullock. Its budget of $59 million was reported at the time to be the biggest ever given to a first-time director.
"It was very unusual for me to make an action film because I hadn't seen one before. My taste was more European — Fellini and Godard," says Brambilla. "I was a tourist in that industry." He says he was ultimately frustrated by the "formulas" he had to follow for an action movie.
But he enjoyed working with the latest technology and is proud of key images in the film: the beehive-style set he designed where the movie's prisoners were cryogenically frozen and the "virtual sex" scene between Bullock and Stallone, done with strobe lighting and freeze-frame images superimposed over the live action.
Drawn to this sort of image manipulation, he soon began focusing more time on experimental videos he was making on the side. (With this shift came more time in New York, and after splitting his time between the coasts, he finally sold his house in L.A. last year.)
An early art-world breakthrough was "Cyclorama," a multi-screen installation completed in 1999 that he initially financed with more commercial work. A video in the round, it simultaneously shows the sun rising from nine different revolving restaurants in cities across North America. Now in the collection of SFMOMA, it was not replicated for the Santa Monica show for space and logistic reasons, Melandri says.
She mentions "Half Life" from 2002, which is in the show, as another important, early piece. For this work, Brambilla documented teenagers in Garden Grove, Calif., as they played the multi-player shooter game Counter-Strike. The resulting work juxtaposes the violent activity taking place in the game with the teenagers' remarkably calm faces.
A later work, "Cathedral," from 2008, shows Brambilla developing what has arguably become his signature style, combining dozens of filmed images into a single frame. Even though this video draws from his own footage, shot at a soaring, glass-ceilinged mega-mall in Toronto during Christmas shopping season, the work has the dizzying, disorienting effect of a collage.
"Civilization" and "Evolution," made exclusively from other films, take that collage aesthetic to new heights. The artist worked with the Mill post-production studio in Santa Monica to achieve the 3-D effects, created in a software program called Flame.
Each piece, running roughly three minutes on a continuous loop, culls images from some 400 different films. In "Civilization" you can spot E.T. riding his bike in heaven and Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing from "Stay Hungry" (perhaps presciently, Brambilla places him in both heaven and hell). "Evolution" includes Raquel Welch in a cave in "One Million Years B.C.," Daniel Day Lewis in a canoe in "The Last of the Mohicans" and small armies of space-age characters from cult-favorite science-fiction movies.
Brambilla is often grouped with other video artists who sample film — like Christian Marclay and Candice Breitz, but his interests tend to be less narrative. He works with smaller samples, no longer than two seconds, which he says frees him from the legal copyright concerns that have plagued Breitz in particular in the past.
As Brambilla sees it, his work is more painterly: "It's like I'm making a video canvas where the brushstrokes are loops or samples taken from film."
Kanye West used a similar metaphor when Brambilla made a video for his hit single "Power" last year. The video featured West as an imposing god-like figure in a landscape inspired by Botticelli and Michelangelo, only he was surrounded by strippers instead of cherubs. West promoted the video in a tweet as a "moving painting."
The performance artist Marina Abramovic, who has followed Brambilla's work for years, has another analogy. "I see his work as a sort of tapestry, weaving together so much visual information," she says. "'Evolution' is only a few minutes long, but it has so many layers of meaning you can see it over and over again. Your sense of time is totally different — you never see enough."
'Marco Brambilla: The Dark Lining'
Where: Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica 90404
When: Through Aug. 20. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Admission: $5 suggested donation
Contact: (310) 586.6488 or email@example.com