HERES THE MOCKUP Of Doug Aitkens installation Mirror, with strips of light extending upward from LED panels. Video footage shot around Seattle will play continuously on the panels and become abstracted as it passes through the strips.
  • Courtesy Seattle Art Museum
  • HERE'S THE MOCKUP Of Doug Aitken's installation Mirror, with strips of light extending upward from LED panels. Video footage shot around Seattle will play continuously on the panels and become abstracted as it passes through the strips.

Seattle Art Museum is announcing today a monumental new art commission that will be permanently installed on its north and west facades. The piece, called Mirror, will be a series of LED panels and strips across which flow video footage shot in and around Seattle—an image of, say, a boat passing on Puget Sound or a cloud in the sky, as if it were reflected.

The video will be mixed and controlled by a computer program so that it never shows the same way twice. The artist is Doug Aitken, a darling of the contemporary art world and its high society; the "acid modernism" of his Venice Beach home was profiled in Sunday's New York Times T Magazine, and he currently has a spectacular, 360-degree filmic installation ringing the exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., which is a hit.

I have mixed feelings about the commission. On the positive side, it will be great to have a newly commissioned, moving work of art that distinguishes Seattle Art Museum from the other glossy towers in the downtown core. And it will be wonderful to have something that everyone can see all the time, free of charge.

Further, I don't mean any disrespect to Bagley Wright, the man who commissioned the piece before he died last year. "Bagley and Jinny have always collected art way ahead of their time and this piece is emblematic of their courage and foresight as collectors," says Maryann Jordan, Vice Director of SAM.

Wellll... The Wrights were remarkable collectors of modern art. But they are not known for their contemporary eye. Given that Aitken is a preapproved brand at this point, there is nothing particularly foresight-ful or courageous about choosing him.

Now: If an artist is great, you can't fault him for being popular. It's just that I haven't been converted. Perhaps I will be by Mirror. But so far, the Aitkens I've seen have felt a little empty, and very cool.

The title of this mockup is Sunrise.
  • Courtesy Seattle Art Museum
  • The title of this mockup is "Sunrise."

Maybe this deflectiveness is part of the appeal? Of his humonguous, celebrity-studded "archivideo or videotecture" installation on the facade of the Museum of Modern Art in 2007, critic Roberta Smith wrote, "[I]t is both dazzling and a bit bloodless. Where Mr. 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."

What that's "endemic" to Seattle will Aitken uncover? He's never lived here, not that that necessarily matters; we will just have to wait and see. (He now lives in LA but had before lived in NY.)

I asked a critic I trust in Washington, D.C., Kriston Capps, to describe to me his response to SONG 1, the installation currently at the Hirshhorn. Capps is an editor at Architect and writes for the Washington City Paper, Art in America, and Artforum; he has also written for The Washington Post. He wrote via email:

No question, SONG 1 is amazing. It's a huge spectacle, as you point out, and it's brilliantly executed. The word is spectacular. But I don't think it's very good.

Ultimately, we won't know what Mirror will bring until it brings it. During the next few months, Aitken will be filming around Seattle to capture the first rounds of footage. I'm told he will update the footage over time to keep the permanent installation from becoming dated, to keep it "reflecting" the city. But there are lots of ways to be "reflective": clearly, opaquely, poetically, meditatively, curiously, emulatingly. I hope that while he's here, I'll get to talk with him about his ideas, intentions, plans, and hopes for the piece. I have no idea what is his relationship with Seattle, or if he even has one, or thinks one is important in developing Mirror.

As the experiment begins, here are some preliminary remarks to kickstart the thought-versation, from Capps:

Doug Aitken's SONG 1 enjoys a massive external subsidy, which is a common theme of his work. Deploying the surface of the Hirshhorn Museum's cylindrical, Gordon Bunshaft-designed building is a spectacular feat, and a major boost. What video artist, given the resources and access that Aitken has been granted, could not come up with something mesmerizing?

One of the things I wrote for Artforum was that the most amazing reaction came from the joggers running down the National Mall. They weren't expecting to see this giant music video at twilight, and their surprise as they slowed and stopped was delicious. But projecting C-SPAN on the Hirshhorn would draw the same crowd. It's on the National Mall; millions of people walk by that building every spring.

Aitken has always enjoyed a leg up in that regard. He gets Chloe Sevigny to star in his work. For SONG 1, he was able to pull together John Doe (from X), Tilda Swinton, and Devendra Banhart. Beck is one of the 35 or so musicians singing "I Only Have Eyes for You." That means, among other things, that Pitchfork is going write about it. His work benefits from the celebrity of his collaborators—they legitimize his work.

This is not to say that it is a bad film because it involves celebrities or that he does not deserve the success he has earned (and the benefits that flow from it). I do think the choice of the song was inspired: "I Only Have Eyes for You" has been stuck in my head since the piece debuted (I go down to see it most nights), and the more I hum that refrain, the more I feel that Aitken's done something subversive. Listen to the lyrics:

* * * *

My love must be a kind of blind love
I can't see anyone but you.

Are the stars out tonight?
I don't know if it's cloudy or bright
I Only Have Eyes For You, Dear.

The moon maybe high
but I can't see a thing in the sky,
'Cause I Only Have Eyes For You.

I don't know if we're in a garden,
or on a crowded avenue.

You are here
So am I
Maybe millions of people go by,
but they all disappear from view.

* * * *
Each couplet describes the situation of seeing the work on the Mall. Are the stars out tonight? Can't see them from the National Mall anyway. I don't know if we're in a garden, or on a crowded avenue. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, located on the National Mall, is both. You are here, so am I, maybe millions of people go by. That's not even a question. It's like I'm singing I Only Have Eyes for You, Doug Aitken Video.

Chad Clark, a local musician behind the seminal D.C. band Beauty Pill, says that it really couldn't be any other song—that it's just this eternally modernist song, or something like that. I also don't think that Aitken could have picked another song, because nothing else would fit the space so well.

That said, SONG 1 is at the end of the day a music video. That's not necessarily a knock: Like a great book cover, there's something magical about using one medium to interpret another. There can be magic, anyway. Aitken draws heavily on magic for this video, for certain. He has selected images overwhelmingly for their mesmerizing quality—traffic, factory work, water, Devendra—and these images conspire to bring about "liquid architecture." That's how Aitken himself describes the piece. It is pretty, and I am always suspicious of pretty. In any case, it just wouldn't work or be possible or even sensible without the Hirshhorn building. The museum is doing almost all the work here.

I don't know much about how SAM will deploy Aitken, but two things. One, the video sounds (by your description) a little like one that Olafur Eliasson's Innen Stadt Aussen—which is this wonderful little love note that Eliasson wrote to Berlin when he moved there and adopted the city as his home. If I were a Seattle Stranger art critic I might feel tempted to judge Aitken's piece by that standard.

Two: Is enough enough? I saw Tino Sehgal empty out the Guggenheim of objects. There was that one guy who built a slide through the New Museum. Aitken's all over the Hirshhorn, truly. This nationwide escalation—that new contemporary art projects have to take place on the level of the entire museum—drives up costs for museums and competition for spectacle, and it's not necessarily the viewer who benefits.

That last note reminds me of the Cai Guo-Qiang exploding cars installation in Seattle Art Museum's lobby. This piece, which is meant to be read horizontally, as a sequence of a single car flying through space, is instead physically broken up and illegible in SAM's busy, multi-level lobby—it just doesn't fit the space, and the experience of the piece suffers greatly for it. When museums buy large installations, sometimes they jump at the scale and lose the details.

  • Courtesy Seattle Art Museum

Ed. note: This post has been altered since its original publication.