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.