Projecting a Dreamscape

Doug Aitken’s ‘Song 1’ turns the Hirshhorn into a giant video screen

March 28, 2012

Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” combines mundane images with star cameos and a plaintive, dreamy soundtrack.

When New York/Los Angeles-based installation artist Doug Aitken first saw the Hirshhorn museum in person, he thought its concrete exterior looked like a giant movie screen. “It’s such a fascinating architectural statement,” he says.

Aitken quickly knew what he wanted to do with the convex cylinder, too. “I wanted to create something that was a form of liquid architecture instead of a solid,” he says, by projecting moving images on the Hirshhorn’s exterior in a way “that could be transformative and constantly changing.”

The details of the project began to emerge when Aitken started creating a piece that became “Song 1,” a multimedia work that will be projected onto the Hirshhorn’s façade in a continuous loop from sundown to midnight through May 13. The piece combines moving images with multiple versions of the 1934 pop standard “I Only Have Eyes for You” as interpreted by the likes of Beck and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy.

“There was a lot of experimentation that went into it, but at a certain point the narrative started making itself when we started filming,” Aitken says. “The idea of the song became almost a passport to a map of the modern landscape, or modern psyche. It was fascinating to me to watch the work do that on its own.”

The song, in permutations including doo-wop, ragtime, pedal-steel and ambient noise, runs under a collection of images from the everyday world — people in a parking garage, a driver on a freeway, cooks in a restaurant kitchen. It’s all brought to larger-than-life proportions with 11 high-definition projectors.

“The places used in it are everywhere and anywhere,” Aitekn says. “The spaces we pass by, the negative spaces we see on the side of the road. I was attracted to that … nonspecific quality.”

But there are some specifically recognizable faces in the film as well, including Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton, guitarist John Doe of legendary L.A. punk band X and indie-folk darling Devendra Banhart.

“I wasn’t interested in it being character-driven,” Aitken says. “I wanted the people in the work to become components in a larger landscape, to … use this very simple, clear, perfect pop song that was written in the ’30s to evolve and expand. It’s something that is at once deconstructive and expansive.”

The overall effect is somewhat hypnotic. Passersby will find it difficult to resist stopping and swaying to the song, perhaps singing along, themselves becoming part of the work:

“I don’t know if we’re in a garden
Or on a crowded avenue
You are here, so am I
Maybe millions of people go by
But they all disappear from view
And I only have eyes for you.”

Mood Music
The 35-minute loop of Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s 1934 tune “I Only Have Eyes For You” in “Song 1” is a Frankenstein affair. Dozens of versions are stitched together, connected at 60 beats per minute and played over 22 speakers. It’s impossible to separate the specific renditions in the piece, but some of the participating acts are below. We’ve also included a few of the bands’ original songs that touch on themes in “Song 1” for a post-viewing playlist.

Beck, “Think I’m in Love” from “The Information” (2006)

James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem), “I Can Change” from “This Is Happening” (2010)

Devendra Banhart, “A Sight to Behold” from “Rejoicing in the Hands” (2004)

Mountains, “Add Infinity” from “Choral” (2009)

CFCF, “You Hear Colours” from “Continent” (2009)

High Places, “Vision’s the First …” 7-inch (2008)

No Age, “Glitter” from “Everything in Between” (2010)

Lucky Dragons, “Long Form” from “Long Form” (2012)

Alternate Views
Taking a long, slow walk around the Hirshhorn Museum is the best way to view Doug Aitken’s “Song 1” installation from different perspectives. But if you’re in a hurry, the Jefferson Drive side is really the prime viewing location. And if you’d like to add some texture to the experience, sit down on a bench in the 9th Street side garden and take in “Song 1” though the barren trees.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW; through May 13, free; 202-633-1000. (L’Enfant Plaza)
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Marc Silver | March 28, 2012