Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers (2007)

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If you find yourself walking through midtown Manhattan after dark during the next month, I’d encourage you to take a detour into the sculpture garden behind the Museum of Modern Art (enter from 54th Street), where a number of short films made by Doug Aitken are being projected simultaneously onto various glass facades of the building from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night through February 12. (There’s also a projection on the front wall of the museum, on 53rd Street, and another on the wall of the nearby American Museum of Folk Art.) The project is known as Doug Aitken: sleepwalkers.


The projection is 1080p HD video, not film. But the result is something remarkable. From the sculpture garden, you can see five huge moving images simultaneously, which is fairly cool — and the screens are frame-synchronized so that all of the edits happen at precisely the same moment. But what I really liked was the way the transparency and reflectivity of the glass walls create mirror-image doubles of some of the images that seem to extend, floating in space, into the buildings themselves. The sheer scale of the images, combined with the height at which they’re projected, also creates some problems for spectators on the ground. If I positioned myself to watch Seu Jorge on one screen, I’d find myself suddenly intrigued by what Donald Sutherland was doing on a screen that I a more oblique angle on. And if I walked across the courtyard to get a good view of Sutherland, I’d see Jorge doing something much more interesting, caught, perhaps, out of the corner of my eye and through a tangle of bare tree branches that formed a sort of semi-transparent organic curtain.

What about the content of the 13-minute mini-movies themselves? It’s hard to say. The vastness of the installation, coupled with the sudden cold snap that coincided with the arrival of this wintry exhibit, isn’t exactly conducive to critical viewing. Certainly the moving pictures — moody photography of Sutherland, Tilda Swinton, Cat Power, Jorge, and somebody named Ryan Donowho — are gorgeous. And I did note that, as each piece neared its end, the imagery became more frantic and abstract, an effect that was bracing and highly pleasing writ large overhead in the crisp night air. Having reached a kind of visual crescendo, the images would resolve themselves once more, back at the beginning of their spare narratives — but with the reels scrambled so that different images appeared in different places, and so that you’d make different connections between the pieces based on their juxtaposition. Maybe this kind of thing is old hat in the art world (I know Doug Aitken’s name, but to be be perfectly honest the only work of his I’m actually familiar with is his terrific music video for Interpol’s “NYC”), but for this moviegoer it was an arresting and unusual experience — at least until the crowd dispersed and it got downright chilly out there in the open.

If you’re interested, I wrote a story about the exhibit’s technical specifications for Film & Video.

Doug Aitken’s music video for Interpol’s “NYC.”

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