When a Museum's Exterior Becomes a Canvas for Video Art

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Doug Aitken's Song 1 transforms the Hirshhorn building into a sonic and visual installation.

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© Frederick Charles, fcharles.com

The first thing you notice about Song 1 is that you have to wait for it to start. The Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian Institution's modern and contemporary art gallery in Washington, D.C. that looks like a concrete donut from above, commissioned the multimedia artist Doug Aitken to create a film that would illuminate the building's circular façade in its entirety. On March 22, the day of Song 1's debut, people collected on the lawns outside the building, while others stood as far back as the street for a more holistic view of the first-ever work of 360-degree, convex-screen cinema. All they knew was that at sunset, 11 high-definition projectors (each wisely equipped with bird spikes) would pour light onto the pale gray "screen," and the film would play in a loop until midnight. As night slowly came on, the sky's streaks of soft pink faded into its prevailing blue—when would dark be dark enough?

At 7:45 p.m., the film began, prompting murmurs of pleasant surprise and the rough crinkle of plastic food bags put away. That Song 1 should begin without preface and at its own whim—as though its presence needs no explanation and should be treated as part of the environment—keeps with the spirit of the film. There are obvious practical reasons for showing an outdoor film in the dark. But Song 1's created landscape, or what Aitken calls its "urban earthwork," often merges seamlessly with the real conditions of its nighttime screening. To start, most of the scenes in Song 1 take place at night, and whatever light that appears is almost never natural: the flame of a match, the garish fluorescence of a corner store, the neon tubing of a motel sign. Then there are more subtle crossovers: As a tuxedoed performer sings the line "All the stars are out tonight," he lifts his hand searchingly and stares upward—seemingly past the frame of the shot, beyond the wall of the Hirshhorn, and into the very sky above us. In one uncanny instance, a car could be heard rumbling past the museum, for a few seconds providing a live soundtrack to a shot of moving cars. The people and places of Song 1 have always been here; we simply haven't known to pay attention, until now.

Song 1, which runs for 35 minutes, is composed of a series of unconnected scenes that offer painterly images rather than traceable action with a beginning and end. Narrative has been traded in for musical spirit as the organizing force. The structural basis of Song 1 is the tune "I Only Have Eyes for You," originally written in 1934 for the movie Dames and covered endlessly since. Aitken takes his turn, enlisting the help of stylistically diverse musicians like Beck, Devendra Banhart, and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to create different versions of the song: It's slowed down, made minimalist, drowned in pedal-steel guitar, broken into individual lines, and reworked in other genres. There is no dialogue in the film. There is only the language of the song, some version of which dictates the mood (wistful, eerie, energetic, romantic) and action (typically a person singing) of every scene. "The idea of the song became the passport to map that modern landscape," Aitken said in a brief Q&A after the film, emphasizing that the work grew organically from a "minimal idea" and "created its own language."

Despite the technical challenge posed by the Hirshhorn's architecture (Aitken was supplied a computer scan of the building that provided dimensions within one centimeter in any direction), the task of integrating film, music, architecture, and public space was not exactly foreign territory for the Los Angeles-born artist. Aitken, whose work has been hosted by institutions like the Pompidou Center and the Whitney Museum, is an expert curator of images. His repertoire includes photography, collages, sound experiments, and multiple-screen installations, and it was one of the latter—his eight-screen piece Electric Earth (1999)—that earned him the International Prize at the Venice Biennale. Within Aitken's oeuvre, the work that is perhaps most comparable to Song 1 is Sleepwalkers. In 2007, Aitken animated the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City with eight large-scale moving images documenting a day in the lives of five city dwellers (the actors include Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton, who appears in Song 1 as a mysterious, robe-clad figure). Each film follows a single character through everyday rituals—waking up, taking a shower, getting to work—and their lives play out simultaneously on separate wall-screens, an arrangement that forces the viewer to travel the expanse of the work. Song 1, in which an image on one side of the building might be different from the other, produces a similar effect.

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© Frederick Charles, fcharles.com

But if Sleepwalkers features characters with specific lives, however mundane, the world of Song 1 is populated by abstract figures. The camera scrutinizes with an intensity of effort that, in another circumstance (think Bergman), would bore a clean hole through the skin—but the viewer of Song 1 can never penetrate beyond the face, however enlarged its features are on the walls of the Hirshhorn. When the camera closes in on a woman standing in a parking lot, we can see the sunken whiskers of wrinkles on the tissue-paper skin around her mouth. We may see the details of a man's shoes and how he swirls his coffee cup in a pool of its juices on a diner tabletop, but he, like the others, remains an unknowable figure in a setting as nonspecific as he. Diners, parking lots, factories, convenience stores, stairwells, empty hallways: These are public urban spaces we know intimately, but without an anchor to specific experience. Aitken made a point of unhinging Song 1 from particular referents. When a reporter said the piece reminded him of Los Angeles, Aitken stated flatly, "I disagree"; when asked about the possible political implications of the piece—the Hirshhorn sits halfway between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, after all—Aitken dismissed the connection. In his own words, the places in Song 1 are "negative spaces," found "everywhere and anywhere." The same could be said for the people who inhabit them. We expect to see their nondescript faces out on the street, as part of the landscape, but we don't hold ourselves to the task of recognizing them as individuals.

Of all the regions of the human face, the mouth emerges as the most mobile, given that the singing accompanies low-energy activities like sitting, standing, driving, and waiting. But what should be the locus of personality and expression becomes the vessel for a "simple, clear, perfect pop song," as Aitken calls it, that everybody knows. We don't hear the voices of the actors: A woman might be making the motions of singing on screen, but a man's voice will play; often, the movement of an actor's lips is plainly un-synchronized to the music, falling behind by a smidgen of a beat. They are not singing, but singing along. With repetition, "I Only Have Eyes for You" becomes the sad universal soundtrack for these nameless nighttime wanderers—literally, as suggested by the repeated shot of a whirring reel-to-reel tape player. What begins as a jaunty song about willing submission to blindness and distraction so as to gaze at one's lover becomes a bleak anthem of alienation. The lines "You are here, and so am I / Maybe millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view" take on a new meaning when sung by two listless workers in separate corners of a busy factory, or when sung by solitary drivers hurtling down a highway with hundreds of others just like them. But perhaps there's consolation to be found in knowing that we are not alone in feeling so lonely.

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© Frederick Charles, fcharles.com

Song 1 is a groundbreaking work for the Hirshhorn as much as it is for Aitken. The museum's keen interest in public-space transformation began with the arrival of Richard Koshalek as director three years ago. As Koshalek related in an interview, the Hirshhorn's location on the Mall and the opportunity to "animate and energize public space" played a part in his decision to leave California to take the helm of the Hirshhorn in 2009. In keeping with this interest, Koshalek arranged for Aitken—before any other artist—to visit D.C. that year, believing that Aitken worked on a scale suitable for a public-space project. The original idea was to have the artist design a new bookstore for the Hirshhorn. But as Aitken stepped out of the taxi on Independence Avenue for his first visit to the museum, he saw a "fascinating architectural statement" that begged unpacking: "When I saw this form and volume in front of me," he recalled, "my mind raced to the idea. Could one un-anchor the structure?" Aitken wanted to reimagine a space far larger—and far more public—than an indoor bookstore (which, nevertheless, he "probably" will take on as a project in the future, according to Koshalek).

Song 1 is the first of a slate of public-space projects that the Hirshhorn plans to unveil over the coming years. Scheduled for next year is an inflatable structure called "The Bloomberg Balloon" (its working title: "Temporary Inflatable Pavilion"), which will emerge through the top of the museum's center cavity and provide space for performances and lectures. "It's really about redefining the priorities of the institution," Koshalek said of the Hirshhorn's push for public-space transformation. "The museum is serving as a model to test new ideas and new uses of public space through the eyes of the artist."

The film, which joins the Hirshhorn's permanent collection, will finish its run on May 13. (Two days prior, the museum will turn off the recorded soundtrack of Song 1 for one night only and host a "happening," a favored Aitken tradition featuring live performances.) The museum plans to show the film again—indoors and outdoors—in the future, according to Koshalek. But there's reason to be glad that Song 1 will take a break in a few months. Krzysztof Wodiczko, a Polish artist renowned for his politically charged film projections on the exterior of buildings, once wrote as a warning, "Slide projectors must be switched off before the image loses its impact and becomes vulnerable to the appropriation by the building as a decoration." Song 1 is powerful because it jolts awake the night and its inhabitants—let us fall asleep again, so we may be able to come awake.

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Esther Yi does story research for The Atlantic.

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