Surface to Air

Surface to Air

A rendering of Song 1.
Courtesy Doug Aitken Workshop

It has been compared to a doughnut and a UFO, and less charitably (by Ada Louise Huxtable) to a bomb shelter and penitentiary. But Washington, D.C.’s cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, will soon double as something else entirely: a movie screen. Starting on March 22, the Smithsonian’s modern art museum will show a new 360-degree audiovisual work by artist Doug Aitken on its nearly blank concrete facade. The piece will run every night, sunset until midnight, through May 13.

Called Song 1, the installation splices together more than a dozen new versions of the ur-pop song “I Only Have Eyes for You” by recording artists including Beck and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, and harmonizes them with images from 11 projectors, often blending these into a single wraparound image. At times, the museum building will appear to spin or lift off the ground. The piece is set to a consistent, slow, 60-beats-per-minute tempo, regardless of the song version playing. Bunshaft’s building “kind of dictated the tempo and rhythm and structure of the piece,” said the Hirshhorn’s deputy director and chief curator, Kerry Brougher.


A multimedia artist based in Los Angeles and New York, Aitken won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999 for Electric Earth, and in 2007, the Museum of Modern Art displayed his work Sleepwalkers, featuring Tilda Swinton and Donald Sutherland, across several of its exterior walls (Swinton also appears in a publicity rendering for Song 1). Until now, however, projecting onto a convex circular wall hasn’t been part of Aitken’s repertoire. Viewers won’t be able to see this film at one time, from one vantage point, so will have to walk around the perimeter of the museum to view the whole thing.

“It’s creating a whole new set of issues and challenges, in terms of how you edit a film and create a montage,” Brougher said. “There are all kind of vocabularies that have to be reinvented to…articulate a film on a circular surface this way.”

The Mall isn’t much of a nighttime destination, and Independence Avenue, where the Hirshhorn is located, draws little after-dark foot traffic (it’s lined by other museums and government office buildings). But the Hirshhorn has pushed the envelope with after-hours programming in recent years, and for this show, staff have planned an opening lecture by the artist, a closing party with live music, and special events in between. The exhibition also coincides with D.C.’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, which brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Mall every spring.

Dynamic facades are scarce in Washington, and given the museum’s 80-foot height, Song 1 is bound to make an impression. Brougher hopes it will also help warm up the public image of Bunshaft’s 1974 icon. “I happen to love this building,” he said. “I hope this piece draws attention to the sort of idiosyncrasy of the architecture, and creates a lightness to it which maybe people don’t feel at first.”