Still from Kota Ezawa, The Simpson Verdict, 2002
Still from Kota Ezawa, The Simpson Verdict, 2002

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Strolling down the street of a medieval Italian town in Christian Jankowski’s 2003 video piece, This I Played Tomorrow, the beautiful Alessia, clad in a feather boa and sequined headband, turns to her hunky love interest. “Live, Federico!” she says. “It’s an incredible way of escaping reality.”

Sage advice, in a time when we turn on the TV to watch real life, create second lives online, and film our confessions for video blogs. How better to escape all that reality than to return to our lives, refreshingly mundane and free of camera crews, love triangles, eliminations, and catchphrases? The ironies of reality-drenched media are the focus of “Realisms,” the second installment of the Hirshhorn’s “The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image.”

After floating through Part 1’s “Dreams,” which featured 21 video interpretations of what happens between REM cycles, visitors plummet back to Earth in “Realisms,” which explores a Hollywood culture of subtle deceptions. The exhibit shows what it’s easy to forget while watching the small or silver screen: It’s all a gently scripted, perfectly lit, skillfully edited lie. The couple in This I Played Tomorrow are struggling actors whom Jankowski approached outside of Cinecitta, the Italian Hollywood, and asked what their dream role would be. Jankowski takes their (and others’) answers and musings about the role of movies in life and weaves them into a film that allows each actor to play his or her fantasy part, whether it’s a caveman who introduces language to humankind or Alessia’s vamp. Between the fantasies on film and the obvious vulnerability of the actors, the work exposes the desperation to be in front of a camera. Three monitors to the left of the film show Jankowski interviewing each actor, asking whether they would be willing to act for free. None hesitates before saying yes.

Still from Christian Jankowski, This I Played Tomorrow, 2003

In the “Dreams” installment of the exhibit last spring, each piece served a different role, contributing to a mood or representing a typical type of dream. Collected together, the works made the show the somnambulant hit that it was. “Realisms,” however, lacks this relationship between works, as well as the diversity of messages in the “Dreams” films. Each “realism” serves a similar purpose: to pull away the curtain from media and reveal the ironies and fallacies within. Putting all 19 works together almost seems heavy-handed—a reminder, room after room, of the slick editing and well-practiced actors it takes to pull off reality in a convincing manner.

Many pieces in the exhibit seem to have been selected simply for their irony quotient. Early on, viewers watch an Irish teenager who’s given direction on how best to act himself during a casting call in Ian Charlesworth’s 2005 piece John. A few rooms later, the actresses hired to play artist Kerry Tribe in her 2001 video Double do a better job portraying her than she could. Mungo Thomson’s 2004 four-wall video projection of New York scenery is actually footage of four different Hollywood sets, indistinguishable from the real thing. By the time you arrive at Runa Islam’s 1998 video Tuin, where the camerawork from the opening sequence of the 1974 film Martha is revealed, you’ll have certainly gotten the concept down and then some.

“Realisms” is divided into two parts, though the halves blend together. The first part takes a critical lens to Hollywood and conventional filmmaking, while the second appraises the media and social phenomena, from protests to historical reenactments. In the same sense that the line between entertainment and journalism is growing blurrier, the split between the exhibit’s segments is practically unnoticeable. And though the works have distinct settings, plots, characters, and dialogue, most posit the same questions: What makes something real? Should we believe what we see? And while the answer to that question is a resounding No, few in this group of artists take a stance on whether this new form of realism is good or bad.

Is it wrong that we learn parenting from the famous actors who play parents in the movies? Candice Breitz, who for 2005’s Mother + Father edits together moments from well-known comedies and dramas like Father of the Bride and Stepmom, doesn’t say. In the two-room display, Breitz shows Steve Martin, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and other top-billed names appearing more “parental” than most real parents. The clips in the two rooms (one for mothers, one for fathers) are fast-paced and skillfully edited: Mothers are shrill and subservient (there’s a laundry-folding montage); fathers are protective and masculine, slamming doors and scolding, with Kramer vs. Kramer’s Dustin Hoffman repeating “Daddy’s gotta bring home the bacon,” on a loop.

Corinna Schnitt shows a similar reserve. For 2003’s Living a Beautiful Life, the artist interviewed Los Angeles teens about what comprises a “beautiful life,” and their answers could’ve come straight out of The Real Housewives of Orange County or Entourage. Actors recite the teens’ aspirations, all of which involve mansions, maids, and ocean views. “I enjoy having a hot mistress every two months,” one man deadpans from a poolside lounge chair. “I don’t worry about my husband leaving me because I don’t look old,” says a cougar-to-be. To Schnitt, though, these lives are beautiful, albeit empty, naive, and riddled with clichés. But she can’t judge—for the privileged teens of Los Angeles, these daydreams may indeed come true.

Paul Chan, however, passes judgment, and it’s harsh: In 2005’s 1st Light, a computer-animated projection on the floor, Chan depicts a surreal silhouette of the Rapture, except instead of true believers ascending into heaven, consumer goods such as cell phones, cars, and eyeglasses float up instead. Then the silhouettes of bodies begin to plummet from the sky, reminding us where a Hollywood-worshipping society’s loyalties lie—with things rather than with people.

No piece better represents the fallacies of film better than Julian Rosefeldt’s 2006 work Lonely Planet, which depicts a Western backpacker traveling alone through India with a guidebook. Is it a documentary? The sweeping shots of the traveler navigating busy Indian streets and train stations and being greeted by fascinated children would have us believe so. But then Rosefeldt steps backstage to get his makeup done while “stagehands” around him construct a set. Soon, the traveler and the “stagehands” break into an energetic Bollywood-style song-and-dance routine. And just when you think the backpacker’s escaped the set for a quiet moment alone, another cameraman swoops into the frame. It’s wonderfully meta, this actor-playing-an-actor-playing-a-real-person, and it keeps you guessing throughout the entire loop.

“Realisms” also reminds us that, for some, reality TV is real—its stars, after all, are living what we’re watching. Phil Collins’ 2005 work Return of the Real shows Turkish reality-TV stars interviewed about their experiences on and off camera after their time in the limelight has passed. Some are vapid—a pretty contest­ant talks about how brave she was to have plastic surgery—while others are remorseful, sharing stories of embarrassing themselves and their families. One woman, who may be the Heidi Montag of Turkey, knew little of life off-screen. “I really thought we liked each other,” she says of the man she met, married, and divorced on television. She almost gets the viewer’s sympathy, until a statement soon after: “Then I was invited to come on TV for the ninth time,” she says, and it becomes clear that she’s like a former Real World star whose résumé now opens with “Former Real World star”—subsisting on overexposure and underachievement.

In a clever twist, one of television’s realest and most-watched moments—the verdict of the O.J. Simpson trial—becomes make-believe in Kota Ezawa’s 2002 piece The Simpson Verdict. The artist presents the story’s familiar characters in construction-paper animation, acting out the verdict to the real audio recording from the trial. By changing it into a cartoon, Ezawa erases the gravity of the verdict and its implications and place in the long saga of race in America.

In choosing “Realisms” as the title of this exhibit, curators Anne Ellegood and Kristen Hileman reclaim the word from the 19th-century painting movement that actually strove to depict something real. The film and video creators on exhibit have no such aims. If we’ve learned anything from years of reality programming, fictionalized “memoirs,” and famous-on-YouTube teens, it’s that real life needs an editor, makeup artist, and handpicked soundtrack of plaintive, radio-friendly Top 40 hits to be interesting. If we really want to get away from reality, we have to figure out how to do what Alessia demands: just live.