Friday, September 21, 2012

SONG 1: Doug Aitken at the Hirshhorn

Over the years, Doug Aitken has developed a singular and enviable practice: as a purveyor of large-scale, well-funded, ephemeral projects supported by a handful of devoted, established institutions, he is that rare artist who has figured out how to straddle the parallel tracks of commercial and fine art, an ambition achieved by few--and perhaps shared by none, considering the more conceptual, as opposed to pop, leanings of his oeuvre. He seems to have scarce need for the routine approval of the gallery circuit (actually, I don't know if that's true, but his New York gallery's website shows that his last exhibition was in 2008), instead carving out a niche with site-specific, spectacular projection works: after-dark-only, semi-public temporary pieces that are showy but manage to skirt the usual groan-inducing compromises of most public art.

In SONG 1, a 360-degree video projection mapped to the cylindrical architecture of Washington DC's Hirshhorn Museum, Aitken deploys his A-game bag of tricks, perhaps best described as lyrical film noir. It's narratively abstract but formally precise, all montage and motifs, multi-screen and nonlinear, and populated by affectless, oddball characters inhabiting the dusk-til-dawn boulevards of 'Lost' Angeles: an artificially lit, cinematic inner-edge megapolis suffused with the same listless melancholy and magical realism that admirers of David Lynch and Edward Hopper might be familiar with. Viewed as a kind of zoetrope-in-reverse, SONG 1 is a structural and phenomenal loop-- inverting its association with other panoramic/panoptic presentations that enclose viewers around a perceptual center, instead projecting the imagery along the outer circumference of the museum's facade. 

The audience is encouraged, thus, to perambulate around the building's horizon-line, with no fixed or privileged field of view; although the museum's landscaping makes a completely unhindered line of sight impossible, Aitken courageously sacrifices clarity by projecting straight through the trees onto the building, inadvertently evoking a liminal, haunted-forest effect that echoes with the polyphonous strains of the film's soundtrack. Aitken has a keen eye for the seductive artificiality of filmic space and time, flipping instinctually between the floating frames of traditionally composed narrative sequences--the projection as cinema--and kaleidoscopic, patterned abstractions of urban chiaroscuro--visual effects as architectural ornament.

The main character of SONG 1 is actually, as the title suggests, a song: the iconic standard 'I Only Have Eyes For You'--specifically the popular version recorded by 1950s doo-wop group The Flamingos as a touchstone, reworked by various musical artists and actors. This cast is directed to enact various lyrical and choreographed tableaus, in solo and counterpoint: singing over a car radio during a pensive late-night drive; a staccato duet (or duel?) in front of a shifting neon collage; and, in the film's most amusing segment, a Stomp-like percussive routine beat out by the beleaguered-looking inhabitants of an all-night diner. Mostly, though, 'Eyes..' serves as an increasingly fragmented fugue-like soundtrack guiding this eclectic ensemble of characters who, one imagines, mentally casts the small dramas of their somnambulist urban lives as something cinematic, cooly romantic, and sublime. Of course, we all have these 'soundtracks to our lives' running in the back of our minds, and our own reveries can, at times, seem like a lens-flared, soft-focus TV-movie montage. Having said that, SONG 1 periodically borders on twee, with the slick calculated affect of a car commercial or too-quirky indie film; but in this case, it might be all right to qualify Aitken's commercialized image/sound vocabulary as a type of appropriated material, rather than a lexicon of received ideas. Or frankly, maybe it's both; if the goal of commercial entertainment is to deliver closed, cathartic story arcs which dispel ambiguity, then SONG 1's lack of dramatic structure and traditional denouement--edited percussively rather than expositionally-- overrides some of the skepticism generated by the work's unarguable 'entertainment value'.  

In short, SONG 1 was a crowd-pleaser--including, perhaps especially for the crowd that is unfamiliar with the term "expanded cinema"--and one which, like the semi-lucid audiovisual drift of Marclay's 'The Clock', evokes nostalgia while eliding its attendant mawkishness.

For photos, production stills, and some interesting essays that accompanied the show, check out the museum's artist page here.

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