Still from Christoph Girardet, Release, 1996
Still from Christoph Girardet, Release, 1996

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If dreaming is, as psychologist Ludwig Strümpell once said, “the 10 fingers of a man who knows nothing of music wandering across a piano,” then the Hirshhorn’s “The Cinema Effect” is a symphony orchestra. The film, digital, and video works exhibited turn dreams and nightmares—things that are usually unique and unshared with others—into a communal experience of both beauty and fright. (“Dreams” is the first of the exhibit’s two parts; “Realisms” opens in June.)

In theory, curating an exhibit about dreams can be quite simple. Just bring together a collection of pieces that addresses our unconscious state—like, say, Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Sleep, which shows poet John Giorno sleeping for five hours—and combine it with other works that mimic our most popular dreams. Curators Kerry Brougher and Kelly Gordon do include Sleep, but their intentions aren’t so superficial: The 21 works on display include some unintuitive choices that still evoke the feeling of walking through a person’s subconscious. Plenty of pieces address dreaming in a straightforward way, but the ones that don’t are the ones most crucial to the exhibit and the viewer’s experience.

The exhibit is sequenced much like a journey—first the lights go down as viewers part a curtain (a literal curtain, in Douglas Gordon’s 1998 installation Off-Screen), then travel further into the depths of our collective imagination to access our most bizarre and meaningful dreams. We finally surface from deep sleep to works that more closely represent reality, such as Wolfgang Staehle’s Niagara (2004). A full-wall projection of the famous falls seems as good a fit for “Realisms” as “Dreams”—this exhibit appears to segue seamlessly into the next.

The circular shape of the Hirshhorn, though, is as important as the order of the films; it mimics the REM cycles we repeat several times a night. The end of the ­exhibit is not intended to represent wakefulness, only a shallower sleep: By the time viewers see Niagara, they’re only a few feet away from re-entering the exhibit and the dream state all over again, just as the films on loops cycle endlessly through their images and characters.

Dreams—or at least dream interpretation—are suffused with symbolism, but there isn’t much symbolism at work in the exhibit. In both of the Bruce Conner films on display, there are too many unconnected images to provide any of the significance and guidance most people seek from their dreams. His 1977 film Take the 5:10 to Dreamland, for instance, cycles through footage of a rabbit, a horse, a woman in a basketball uniform, and a space heater, all lifted from old films and defying the notion that cutting between images conveys how they are related. Others, like Gary Hill’s Suspension of Disbelief (For Marine) (1991-92), lack subtlety: Hill’s 30 small TV monitors suspended across a room flash close-ups of body parts at a rapid pace, practically screaming at the viewer, This is a dream about sex.

What Hill’s piece more accurately captures is the feeling of wanting more. The televisions are very small, each less than a foot long; this, in combination with the speed of the images, makes it difficult to tell whose knuckles, nipples, and navels are whose. Hill never dwells on any image long enough to satisfy. It’s the same feeling you get after waking from a great dream, when you try to grasp your last memories of the scenes you haven’t already forgotten.

There are films of exceptional, unnatural beauty in “Dreams,” particularly Eight (2001) by Theresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler. In the three-and-a-half-minute loop, an 8-year-old girl stands at a window, looking at the soggy remains of her birthday party, which has been ruined by a sudden storm. The camera seamlessly pans from indoors to out, putting the viewer in the midst of the downpour, surrounded by the rhythmic sound of rain. Finally, the girl emerges from the house and gets her pristine pink party dress drenched as she cuts herself a piece of her ruined cake. Though we’re witness to a child’s extreme disappointment, the film conveys resignation and serenity. The most cinematic in both style and content, Eight is more polished than any other piece in the exhibit; most of the 20 other selections share a ruggedness or randomness that more closely mimics dreaming.

But for every serene work, Brougher and Gordon have chosen several on the darker side. The standard childhood nightmare—being kidnapped or chased by a monster—is extended, agonizingly, in Christoph Girardet’s Release (1996) and in Darren Almond’s Geisterbahn (1999). We don’t see the monster in Girardet’s film, but we don’t need to: The victim filling the frame is immediately recognizable as Fay Wray in the original King Kong, struggling against her ropes as she sees the giant gorilla for the first time. Girardet plays with speed, taking a few seconds of the film and distorting and repeating them for more than nine minutes. At the height of her terror, Wray jerks across the screen, struggling against her binds and letting out a scream that, slowed and distorted by Girardet, sounds more like it should be coming from the monster.

In Almond’s Geisterbahn, an intense techno soundtrack accompanies a ride through an amusement-park haunted house in such a shadowy, grainy black-and-white film it almost appears to be animated. Only a young child would be frightened by the animatronic ghosts and witches that emerge from the ride’s shadows, and even then, the scares quickly reveal their origins. Though they’d probably go unnoticed to riders at the site, the film reveals the electrical cords and outlets used to plug in the displays with each flash of the ride’s strobe lights. It’s a wake-up call, similar to the experience of realizing, halfway through a dream, that you’re still asleep, giving you permission to experience the nightmare without anxiety.

Dreaming is deeply solitary, but films are usually designed to be a collective activity—sharing a reverie with others. Tony Oursler is the only artist to acknowledge this in Switch (1996), a three-part installation of handmade dolls with video projected onto their blank faces. The first doll, positioned high on the wall, is a movie director barking orders at his invisible actors, and some of his words take museumgoers aback: “You! Stop looking over here! I don’t exist. The camera does not exist,” he says. “Stop! Nobody move. Freeze.” Nervous laughter from people in the gallery usually follows. (That’s the face of David Bowie, a frequent collaborator with Oursler, on the director doll.)

Unlike Oursler’s director, we cannot control the scenes and actors in our own dreams, and until we’re able to, movies are the best that we can do organically—in some cases they’re even improvements on our dreaming. The Hirshhorn has provided a way to simultaneously experience, share, and revisit our dreams, allowing us to be voyeurs in a collective subconscious. Its 21 dreams are, unlike so many of our own, memorable.