Doug Aitken turns the Hirshhorn’s exterior into ‘the world’s greatest screen’

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly compared the curve of Doug Aitken’s piece with other 360-degree presentations. Aitken’s production is on a convex surface, whereas others are usually on concave surfaces. This version has been corrected.

March 16, 2012

Doug Aitken had made multimedia spectacles out of modern landscapes before. His mesmerizing images of solitary lives playing across the glass of the Museum of Modern Art exterior created a singular urban mood, experienced by thousands of passersby. A more recent piece playing on screens on dark, slow-moving barges in the Aegean Sea was seen by far fewer.

When Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn Museum’s deputy director and chief curator, saw the 1999 Aitken installation that won him the International Prize at the Venice Biennale, he invited him to do a piece in Washington.

“He stepped out the taxi and looked up at the building and said, ‘This is the world’s greatest screen,’ ” Brougher recalls.

“I really had this visceral response to it, ” Aitken says of the Hirshhorn’s famous round building on stilts.

“I was impressed by its enormity. I thought it was just a fascinating architectural structure. It’s very rare to find a continuous curved plane like that.”

He knew at that moment that “the museum itself should really become a work. It felt like there could be a way possibly to activate it,” he says.

After two years of discussion and planning by the 44-year-old California artist, “SONG 1” will be projected onto all sides of Gordon Bunshaft’s striking modernist cylinder beginning Thursday at sunset and running from dusk to midnight through May 13.

The continuous visual loop will fracture images, swirl, swoop and transform the already famous building into a 360-degree panorama that viewers can experience any number of ways: at a fixed point watching it all unfold, walking around the building to see what’s occurring at other vantage points; driving by what may seem like a moving two-story billboard on the Mall or from a distance, where it may look like a Vegas spaceship that’s landed on the august expanse of monuments, museums and grass.

Just as the cherry blossoms in their 100th year on the Mall will attract and delight thousands of spectators during the day this spring, Aitken’s latest work is intended to do the same at night.

For Aitken, whose outdoor video projections, installations and musical happenings have earned him awards for more than a decade, Bunshaft’s stout cylinder was a particular challenge.

Usually such ambitious 360-degree presentations have been indoors and on concave screens — from the pre-film wonder of the Cyclorama at Gettysburg to the Circle-Vision 360˚ theaters in Disney theme parks.

Aitken’s work, however, is on a convex concrete surface that will receive light and movement from nine projectors embedded in boxes big as washing machines on the museum’s perimeter wall.

The aim is to upend the very concept of a museum, says Brougher, demonstrating “how a museum can be pulled inside out.”

For Aitken, the piece allows him to toy with the idea of creating “a fluid architecture or to liberate the mass of architecture.”

At the same time, he was seeking to shatter central notions of cinema — “to break the screen in a sense, so you’re no longer composing for a rectangle with a passive viewer, but instead you’re making something that can possibly empower the viewer to navigate their own narrative and create their own perceptional experience out of something which can’t really be consumed from any angle and doesn’t really have a start or finish.”

As in his 2007 “Sleepwalkers” piece at MoMA, in which the personal stories of individual city dwellers projected on the side of the building, the narrative in “SONG 1” will quickly flip from the mundane to the universal.

He describes “a sequence in the piece where you’re suddenly at nighttime on the freeway, you’re inside a car; maybe it’s the car next to you in the fast lane, and that person is gradually maybe just speaking a passage of a few words of the lyrics while they’re driving.

“And then the camera moves to the car next to that, the car behind that, the car in front of that, and you have this stream of lights moving through nighttime and the building isn’t the museum, the museum starts to break apart into multiple screens — and in each screen is the interior of a different vehicle all moving simultaneously, with the different drivers all synchronized to the same moment in the same song.”

Brougher says it speaks to “the kind of world we live in now. Many of us exist separate from one another, but are linked through other mechanisms. We’re linked in traffic, or in all hearing the same song.”

In that sense the film will contrast these “quite private moments” with “a larger choreography” that will “fuse with the city around it.”

Aitken often uses actors in the films he projects so monumentally, including Tilda Swinton, Donald Sutherland and Chloe Sevigny (with Swinton among those participating in the Hirshhorn project).

But more than actors, the work, as the title indicates, may rely more on musicians performing a specific pop standard first written by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin in 1934 that has had a number of recorded versions since, “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

The song first presented in a movie called “Dames” and perhaps best known from the 1959 doo-wop hit by the Flamingos, is so universally known, Aitken says, “It’s almost like a sonic wallpaper. It’s ubiquitous, the kind of thing everyone has passed through or heard in a gas station at some point in their life.”

Brougher says that with no fixed central vantage point to the piece visually, it is the song that anchors it.

“The tempo for it is set at 60 beats per minute, and it’s continued all the way through the film at 60 beats for minute,” Brougher says. “This I think came out of his challenge of finding the right tempo for things to be cut, to intercut around the building and to circle around the building. He found early on that if things went too fast it didn’t feel right; if it went too slow it didn’t seem right. This seemed like a tempo that worked for the creation of the piece.”

Inspired by the song’s simplicity, Aitken says he wondered: “Could you take the architecture of something that’s so lean and pure and simple in structure,

and could you elevate it to become an artwork on its own and to become something [with] which you could almost create a visual architecture?”

And, he adds, “within that framework, you could then use it as a way to map a 21st-century world, the people of a modern city.”

Aitken commissioned “probably 30 or 40” new versions of the song by musician friends that included Beck, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Devendra Banhart, No Age and Lucky Dragons.

Rather than one version playing after another, they will mix and blend freely into one another, changing as frequently as the visuals on the cylindrical screen.

“One of the things that was interesting to me was: How do you choreograph architecture?” Aitken says.

The answer in part was manipulation of the image.

“At times, the museum appears to rise up out of the earth, and one scene after another is moving up the concrete facade of the museum, slowly followed by another and another. At other times, I think the building might rotate. So a sequence of 12 moving images starts gradually moving counter clockwise rotating around the entire radius of the Hirshhorn,” Aitken says.

The length of the film before it’s looped “will probably be 45 minutes I think,” says Aitken, who was still in the middle of editing when he was interviewed March 8.

But it will ultimately be up to the viewers to determine the length of the experience — and how it will affect them.

“Ideally, I’d like to see a work that can really empower the viewer,” he says. “I’d like to see a work that’s not simply passive, that’s not sitting there, accepting this space between the viewer and the content. I’d really love to see a work that can engage, and ideas within the work can create a dialogue with the viewer.”

To that extent, the installation which will be on display concurrent with the “Suprasensorial” exhibit inside the museum, will also be part of a May 11 “happening” to provide live music (of the one song) to accompany the projections.

Projecting outside the museum will be a way to involve far more people than museum-goers, a notion that excites Aitken.

“I think that it’s always a kind of new frontier when you’re working on a piece that’s exposed to the public in a way but it also has a very specific language,” he says. “But in a work like this, I also want to see the work come off the building, come off the streets, and have this dialogue with everyone who is encountering it. And hopefully there’s a way they’re empowered by it and hopefully a way that it can provoke questions and maybe build a dialogue.”

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How Doug Aitken chose ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’

Doug Aitken: SONG 1

Thursday to May 13, dusk to midnight. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW (L’Enfant Plaza Metro). Free. 202-633-1000 or www.hirshhorn.si.edu.

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