My friend Jen Graves, the art critic for the Seattle Stranger, wrote to me yesterday about Doug Aitken. Graves reports that the Seattle Art Museum has announced that Aitken is bringing a permanent video installation to the museum’s facade. Since D.C. is presently enjoying a (merely temporary) Aitken facade installation, Graves asked me what I thought about it.
While I’d reported on what Aitken will do for D.C.’s dating scene and what kind of food they served at the reception, I hadn’t set down any thoughts about the video installation or the video itself. So I wrote Jen back with a sort of email review, which follows.
No question, SONG 1 is amazing. It’s a huge spectacle, as you point out, and it’s brilliantly executed. The word is spectacular. But I don’t think it’s very good. Doug Aitken’s SONG 1 enjoys a massive external subsidy, which is a common theme of his work. Deploying the surface of the Hirshhorn Museum’s cylindrical, Gordon Bunshaft–designed building is a spectacular feat, and a major boost. What video artist, given the resources and access that Aitken has been granted, could not come up with something mesmerizing?
One of the things I wrote for Artforum was that the most amazing reaction came from the joggers running down the National Mall. They weren’t expecting to see this giant music video at twilight, and their surprise as they slowed and stopped was delicious. But projecting C-SPAN on the Hirshhorn would draw the same crowd. It’s on the National Mall; millions of people walk by that building every spring.
Aitken has always enjoyed a leg up in that regard. He gets Chloe Sevigny to star in his work. For SONG 1, he was able to pull together John Doe (from X), Tilda Swinton, and Devendra Banhart. Beck is one of the 35 or so musicians singing “I Only Have Eyes for You.” That means, among other things, that Pitchfork is going write about it. His work benefits from the celebrity of his collaborators—they legitimize his work.
This is not to say that it is a bad film because it involves celebrities or that he does not deserve the success he has earned (and the benefits that flow from it). I do think the choice of the song was inspired: “I Only Have Eyes for You” has been stuck in my head since the piece debuted (I go down to see it most nights), and the more I hum that refrain, the more I feel that Aitken’s done something subversive. Listen to the lyrics:
My love must be a kind of blind love I can’t see anyone but you.
Are the stars out tonight? I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright I Only Have Eyes For You, Dear.
The moon may be high but I can’t see a thing in the sky, ‘Cause I Only Have Eyes For You.
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.
Each couplet describes the situation of seeing the work on the Mall. Are the stars out tonight? Can’t see them from the National Mall anyway. I don’t know if we’re in a garden, or on a crowded avenue. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, located on the National Mall, is both. You are here, so am I, maybe millions of people go by. That’s not even a question. It’s like I’m singing I Only Have Eyes for You, Doug Aitken Video.
Chad Clark, a local musician behind the seminal D.C. band Beauty Pill, says that it really couldn’t be any other song—that it’s just this eternally modernist song, or something like that. [“Eternally modern” was how Clark phrased it. —ed.] I also don’t think that Aitken could have picked another song, because nothing else would fit the space so well.
That said, SONG 1 is at the end of the day a music video. That’s not necessarily a knock: Like a great book cover, there’s something magical about using one medium to interpret another. There can be magic, anyway. Aitken draws heavily on magic for this video, for certain. He has selected images overwhelmingly for their mesmerizing quality—traffic, factory work, water, Devendra—and these images conspire to bring about “liquid architecture.” That’s how Aitken himself describes the piece. It is pretty, and I am always suspicious of pretty. In any case, it just wouldn’t work or be possible or even sensible without the Hirshhorn building. The museum is doing almost all the work here.
I don’t know much about how SAM will deploy Aitken, but two things. One, the video sounds (by your description) a little like one that Olafur Eliasson’s Innen Stadt Aussen—which is this wonderful little love note that Eliasson wrote to Berlin when he moved there and adopted the city as his home. If I were a Seattle Stranger art critic I might feel tempted to judge Aitken’s piece by that standard.
Two: Is enough enough? I saw Tino Sehgal empty out the Guggenheim of objects. There was that one guy who built a slide through the New Museum. Aitken’s all over the Hirshhorn, truly. This nationwide escalation—that new contemporary art projects have to take place on the level of the entire museum—drives up costs for museums and competition for spectacle, and it’s not necessarily the viewer who benefits.
Photo by Alex Baca