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The Museum as Outdoor Movie Screen, Featuring Five Lives Lived After Dark

The Museum as Outdoor Movie Screen, Featuring Five Lives Lived After Dark

New York Times 1/18/2007

By Roberta Smith

“Sleepwalkers,” Doug Aitken’s monumental video projection piece, is an ode to the city that never sleeps and that the camera has always loved. Now available for viewing at. or more accurately on, the Museum of Modern Art, it is an outstanding example of what might he called archivideo or videotecture. Times Square overflows with commercial versions of the form, and thanks to technology that allows exterior walls to function as video screens, private homes may soon glow with a self-taught variety. This may be the next logical step after “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

“Sleepwalkers,” which made its debut Tuesday night, is it fine-art version of the genre. Produced in concert with the public art organization Creative Time, it dovetails seamlessly with its rarefied setting, the sleek exterior of MoMA’s newly expanded building. Not surprisingly, it is both dazzling and a bit bloodless. Where Dr. Aitken usually touches on an implicitly social turbulence, his first public art project in the United States largely reflects the glamorous, sealed-off and elitist sheen that has become endemic to urban life, especially in Manhattan.

Still, Mr. Aitken’s astute and restless cinematic ambition and his commanding sense of scale are in full force. His work has always incorporated objects and interior spaces; now he has a whole building to play with. He converts MoMA’s thin skin into a movie screen in the not-so-dark theater of the city, creating a postmodern Cubist symphony for the house that Cubism built.

The work’s gliding and jumping images, streaming silently from eight high-powered projectors aimed at three sides of the museum, veer between abstraction and narrative while conjuring up emblematic forms of modern art, modern architecture and modern life. In rapidly syncopated, often synchronized sequences, we watch five great-looking characters – varying in age, sex, class and race – moving through a balletically compressed nocturnal workday, dusk to dawn, in about 14 minutes.

The actors are themselves emblems of glamour and hip. A silver-maned Donald Sutherland plays a captain of industry, and Chan Marshall, revered as the singer Cat Power, is a postal worker. In silent parallel universes, all five rise, fidget, study their reflections, bathe, dress and open the blinds. They exit their apartments down long hallways, pause at store windows and make their way to work. They navigate within a self-contained, almost ostentatious pensiveness. It is a post-9/11 life, but someone’s got to live it.

The piece is most opulently visible above the museum’s sculpture garden on West 54th Street, where five projections appear on three facades. The attenuated grid of MoMA’s windows figures in the images, as do the elegant black silhouettes of the garden’s leafless trees and the reflections of surrounding buildings. Two more segments are projected on the windowless west walls of MoMA and the Museum of American Folk Art; these are most visible from the vacant lot between 53rd and 54th Streets but can also be seen from nearby sidewalks. The eighth projection, functioning as a kind of trailer or teaser, plays above the Modern’s main entrance on West 53rd Street.

The five characters are legible stereotypes depicted in stripped down, abstracted settings. Mr. Sutherland presents as upper class, moving by limousine from a dwelling with classic Modernist furnishings to a Zenned-out office. The actress Tilda Swinton, in mannish slacks and a shirt, is an office worker who dozes in the taxi on her way to the office, where she stands entranced before the glowing lights of an unnaturally large cluster of photocopiers. Ms. Marshall travels by subway to her blue-collar job sorting mail, while the Brazilian musician and actor Seu Jorge covers his impeccable dreadlocks with a hardhat and unrolls electrical cable before a facade that you may recognize as MoMA’s. Slightly more off the grid is a gamin-faced youth played by the street drummer Ryan Donowho who awakens on what appears to be someone else’s sofa, browses through a collection of old LP’s and sets off to work as a bicycle messenger.

Many of the piece’s best moments come when the big, bold shapes and flat colors align in near abstraction. White arrows on red fuse into a continuous band. Flashing black, white and gray rectangles form a dancing patchwork. Red stoplights grow into immense circles. Mondrian’s scaffoldings, Josef Albers’s squares and Ellsworth Kelly’s looming geometries all come to mind.

In the only jarring moment Mr. Sutherland is suddenly upended by a taxicab but rises slowly to tap-dance on its yellow hood. The others all progress toward similar moments of private reverie. Ms. Marshall spins like a Sufi, and Mr. Jorge twirls a lariat. Ms. Tilden plays the violin vigorously, and Mr. Donowho descends into the subway to drum on his plastic bucket. It seems as if everyone agrees that nothing alleviates urban stress like a good hobby.

“The Society of the Spectacle,” a phrase that Guy Debord coined in the 1950s, comes to mind here, as does Debord’s antidote: simply to walk or “drift” through the city, open to accepting fleeting experiences as art. Inviting us to walk through MoMA’s garden and around its building, encountering the city visible in his projections, Mr. Aitken achieves an almost unholy truce, if not an alliance, between spectacle and art.