Hirshorn Exhibit: Song 1

(image via Hirshorn collection)

The Hirshhorn Museum in DC has an extremely cool new exhibit called Song 1, by artist Doug Aitken. For those who don’t live here, the Hirshhorn is part of the Smithsonian Institution, located on the National Mall.  It is an unusually round-shaped building in Washington.

(image via Wikipedia

Artist Doug Aitken was impressed by its shape when he first visited the Hirshhorn Museum two years ago, describes the “very immediate  reaction” he had to the building. “It has this incredible mass, this incredible weight.  I felt that something should happen here.” Aitken surrounded the building in projectors, turning the exterior of the museum into a 360-degree projection screen with a massive circumference 725 feet wide, making it the world’s largest movie screen.

The music of Song 1 comes from the 1934 song by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, “I only have eyes for you.” The song is covered, by a series of artists, including Beck, Devendra Banhart, Nico Jaar, and No Age, on a continuous loop. Each version is accompanied by a brief visual interpretation or mini-music-video of that artist’s take on the song.

(image via Hirshorn collection)

Some of the ones that stuck with me: 1. Several scenes of hundreds of cars passing on the freeway, slowly focus on the individual drivers of those cars, each singing “I only have eyes for you.” Then the car singers all blend together in a unity that makes the traffic seem like a beautiful unified human chorus, instead of an isolated human monotony. 2. Two men in black tie perform an homage to the shoo-wop singers of the 1950s, covering the song while lit with single overhead spotlight, swaying and snapping to the beat. 3. Two workers in the same textile factory sing the song to each other from across conveyor belts. The scenes catch the assembly lines and singers from different angles, until the scene slowly melts into a beautiful kaleidoscope.

(Photo by Frederick Charles via Doug Aitken Workshop)

The transitional scenes  in between the covers are just as amazing. Reels of recording tape spin around the building. A ring of single matches appear, and then suddenly light, surrounding the building in individual flames. We came up to the building, from the Mall side, and sat on a short wall for about 20 mins, then walked around the building, slowly taking it in, and settled in a new location – sitting on the grass in the sculture garden on the Independence Ave. side of the building. Even though the whole set is only about 40 mins long, we ended up staying through two whole runs just to take it all in.

(Photo by Frederick Charles via Doug Aitken Workshop)

And the song keep repeating, in different versions, over and over – alternately sad, poignant, and haunting, and then cute, sweet and inspiring in the next iteration. The overall effect is absolutely hypnotic and beautiful.

The Hirshorn calls Song 1 its “boldest commissionto date,”  and “one of  the most groundbreaking exhibitions in its history.” I have to agree. It is only showing for a limited time – from March 22  through May 13, from dusk to midnight. So hurry to see it while you can! PS. Special thanks to my soon-to-be sister-in-law Amy for telling me about it!


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