Hirshhorn Museum’s “Song 1” is all about projection

They gathered Thursday night in cocktail gowns and hipster garb, in wrinkled dress shirts unchanged since the workday, and in the comfortable baggy uniform of the cherry blossom tourists — and stood gawping at the Hirshhorn Museum. The much-anticipated multimedia piece, “Song 1,” by Doug Aitken, finally had its premiere.

The Hirshhorn’s building, long derided in Washington for its fortress-like heaviness, has never looked quite so fluid and light. Water rippled on its surface, boats floated by, cars streamed like liquid metal down highways that flashed across the 725-foot facade of architect Gordon Bunshaft’s cylindrical museum. All the while, various spectral singers — some crooning for an audience, others affectless and lost in their own solipsistic space — sang an endless loop of different iterations of the classic 1934 pop song “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

Aitken, a California-based artist who has had a dazzling career since winning the International Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale, has long said he wanted the work to be an exercise in “liquid architecture.” He succeeded. And when the word “disappear” appeared and floated for a moment on the endless, circular screen, the work emphasized its aesthetic ambition: to set up a visual spectacle that both attracts looking obsessively, yet makes the museum itself dissolve.

It is by far the most ambitious piece of public art yet attempted in the District. Using 11 projectors and multiple outdoor speakers, the video covers the entire surface of the building, with images that are remarkably sharp. Even the shadows cast by real trees feel like a happy accident in the game of illusion, almost photographic double-exposures on the surface of the video.

As an urban intervention, it is brilliant, animating one of the city’s monumentally grim dead zones: the Independence Avenue corridor just south of the mall. It makes the march of government office buildings on the south side of the street seem even more forlorn, almost alive in their sadness, like the inhabitants of a badly run zoo looking out at freedom.

And the whole thing is perfectly timed, too, arriving just as Cherry Blossom madness has reached it steroidal peak — artistic balm for people exhausted by all those repetitive pink flowers.

But so many aesthetic, technological and cultural threads come together in “Song 1” that it’s worth sorting out the cheap thrills from the more supple and satisfying ones.

The sheer size of the images offers a visceral frisson. Huge faces loom up on the screen, singing, lost in thought, driving a car. Although the Hirshhorn is no higher than the buildings around it, these people seem to tower over the city.

But there are good and long-standing reasons to be suspicious of large images, which are a staple of advertising, Las Vegas and totalitarian personality cults. They are fun and dangerous, overwhelming our skepticism, like being in the midst of an emotional crowd. There are times, watching “Song 1,” when you wonder if anything projected with this much clarity on a building of this size wouldn’t be almost equally hypnotic. And there are times when you wonder if there’s a dystopian urban future hinted at in this project — a perfect melding of messaging, ideology and architecture.

The real substance of the piece, however, is in its tension between fluent images, trivial music and resistant, disappearing architecture. And the key to that tension is the little ditty that underlies the larger “Song 1.”

The song itself functions as a kind Rorschach test. One’s reaction to “Song 1” will depend on how much you are willing to read into Aitken’s choice of the work’s basic, aural DNA.

Appearing first in the 1934 musical “Dames” — a Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley confection — “I Only Have Eyes for You” has been endlessly reworked and reinterpreted over nearly the past 80 years. Singers seem to like it for its self-evidently trivial good nature, as if the song itself is almost transparent. Billie Holiday races through it, almost scattered and breathless. Frank Sinatra puts it on like a cheap suit, wearing it with a light, ambling ease. But no one really looks for depth.

So the song functions a bit like the commercial ephemera celebrated by Andy Warhol, a found object that is almost anonymous. But it’s not an accidental find; it’s a carefully chosen one. The lyrics — in which the singer describes an erotic fixation so powerful that the world around him or her disappears (”I don’t know if we’re in a garden/or on a crowded avenue”) — celebrate obsessive looking, fixation, that feeling one has in moments of sexual ecstasy that the world dissolves and flows and passes by.

The song thus emphasizes the basic dualities of the whole work, the play of surface and depth, the flow of time or the fixation of looking. But it also suggests a kind of narcissism, being so lost in one’s own desires that one doesn’t notice the rest of the universe.

At this point, “Song 1” threatens to become far more interesting than the pleasingly hypnotic stream of images on the building’s bland walls. There would seem to be very little topical, and perhaps nothing specifically local, in the images Aitken deploys. But if he’s trying to create a piece that emphasizes the narcissism of museum culture (tarting up a blank building) or the narcissism of Washington culture (“inside the Beltway” is a rhetorical equivalent to being oblivious to the outside world), the piece suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts.

But if the piece is meant to be all process, all about surface without reference to anything beyond technological wizardry, virtuoso editing and the old cool of surreal juxtapositions, then it isn’t Aitken’s best work. Other pieces have probed more deeply at environmental and social questions. His 2007 installation “sleepwalkers” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City got closer to capturing something essential about the city that hosted it — the fluidity and phantasmagoria of life in the world’s most happily self-obsessed city.

By contrast, “Song 1” feels spectacular but disconnected, abstract, cold and a bit remote. Aitken is a major artist. And by design, his “Song 1” isn’t meant to be seen or digested all at once.

At a public conversation Thursday night, Aitken emphasized the idea of minimalism, saying he found a kind of minimalist perfection in the pop song from which “Song 1” emerges with its myriad fractal energies. He knows what he’s talking about. There is indeed a minimalist aesthetic in the piece, a closed, perfect loop of cultural material that is resistant to further probing. That was, most likely, the intention all along.

But one can wish for, and perhaps project, more onto it. No damage will be done.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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