Beyond Buildings


Doug Aitken's "Song 1": Moving the Mall

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Aaron Betsky


Doug Aitken’s "Song 1" is one of the most romantic and heroic spectacles to unfold in a public space in recent memory. Thanks to a sponsorship from the American Institute of Architects, this projection covering every inch of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., will be up for one more week –so that it will be visible during the AIA convention. If you’re going to be there, make it a post-8 p.m. date.

I must say that this seems unusually progressive for the AIA, as this work of art challenges architecture’s dependence on buildings, a situation on which this professional organization has in turn relied to justify its existence.


Aaron Betsky

"Song 1" is a 35-minute sequence of images, set to samples of the 1934 pop standard “I Only Have Eyes for You.” As in much of Aitken’s work, the real theme is a combination of loneliness and a fascination with an urban landscape dissolving into signs, movement, and open structures such as parking garages. If you wanted to reduce what the message these images produce might be, it is that the various singers are lost and isolated in a world dominated by the continual movement of goods, people, and information. They (ranging from famous actors and singers to anonymous people) mouth the words to the song alone in cars, wandering through hallways, and, in what I think is the most beautiful sequence, while working in what appears to be a carpet factory whose machinery Aitken replicates until it becomes a beautiful, but frightening, kaleidoscope.

There is hope in the Song 1, evident from the first shots, where giant reel-to-reel tape machines start rolling, covering the Hirshhorn bunker’s circle-in-plan with moving circles-in-elevation, until matches light up, eventually covering the museum before turning into the lights around the first duo to sing. The moment is incandescent.

What is most hopeful about the whole event, though, is what it does to the Hirshhorn and the National Mall. Art escapes from those endlessly curving corridors that always return back on themselves inside the institution to burst forth into the public realm. The bunker has burst open. From the Mall, "Song 1" becomes an answer to the mute, backward-looking monuments, bringing a sense of what is really going on in America into our collective back lawn. It is an ephemeral mural that projects narrative and concrete images in the realm where political contestation is suppressed in favor of bland consensus.


Aaron Betsky

"Song 1" also takes a Brutalist building and turns it, even if only for a few evenings, into something lyrical and seemingly transparent and full of life in the manner of which makers of fully glass buildings can only dream. It does not, however, merely reveal what is inside, as it adds a layer onto that collection and life, while spinning the building’s essential form into many fractured, rhythmic, repeated hints at everything that circles around us. Art, life, building, and collective consciousness all become wrapped up into one event.


Aaron Betsky

Of course, it is still pop.  I do warn you: one cycle of "Song 1" will embed “I Only Have Eyes for You” in your brain for days or even weeks. Part of the piece’s success comes both from the recognizable character not only of the tune, but also of some of the actors, and from the moody, saturated images Aitken so often uses, which have the power of a classic MTV music video, sucking you into finding meaning where there only may be sexy imagery.

That is perfectly fine by me. "Song 1" dissolves all kinds of boundaries, including between high and low art. In the end, it may only be rock and roll, but I like it.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.