Things to Do

"Song 1" opens at the Hirshhorn Museum

Artist Doug Aitken transforms the museum’s exterior into a giant outdoor screen for his newest work.

Photograph courtesy of the Hirshhorn.

For the next two months, the area’s biggest film event won’t be in a movie theater. Instead, from sundown to midnight on the National Mall, viewers will be able to see “Song 1,” Doug Aitken’s groundbreaking multimedia installation, projected onto the outside of the Hirshhorn Museum in high definition each night.

Although it’s reminiscent of drive-in theater, this is a new kind of cinema–it encompasses the 360-degree, 725-foot surface of the building. The piece, commissioned by the Hirshhorn, features a variety of performers both unknown and familiar, singing the classic “I Only Have Eyes for You.”

The melody serves as the connective thread, even as the genres and singers change, featuring a country twang one minute and a ragtime piano interlude the next. In another moment, the Scottish actress Tilda Swinton shows up for a slow and haunting portion of the song, followed by ramped-up, thumping percussion as silhouettes dance on the screen like an Apple commercial gone haywire.

Aitken says he hoped the images would make the Hirshhorn’s exterior appear liquid rather than solid. The projections take advantage of the structure’s donut shape, turning images that would look one way on a flat screen into something completely different. A row of lit matches becomes a birthday cake, a straight staircase becomes spiraled.

The Hirshhorn’s small exterior balcony plays with the footage, sometimes seamlessly, as when a picture of a park bench lines up perfectly with it. And other times the balcony juts into actors’ faces, creating what’s almost a funhouse mirror effect.

There’s a sense of narration throughout the 35 minutes–everyone has eyes for someone, but we don’t really know who is the object of desire in any one scene. But more interesting than any storyline is the potential for the Hirshhorn’s environment to interact with what’s onscreen. When a car goes by in the film, it’s mirrored by the cars driving by in real life.

Admittedly, the traffic can sometimes be detrimental–a loud tour bus proved distracting–but other times, such as when a group of 20 white-shirt-clad businessmen whirred past on bicycles, the incident seemed to be timed and choreographed specifically for the piece.

The languid pace of “Song 1” is so transfixing, viewers may not realize the film has looped back around to begin again. It is a site-specific installation, so this is the only chance to see it in its entirety. You can catch it nightly through May 13; for more information, visit the Hirshhorn’s website.