"Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." ~ T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton"

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Song 1 by Doug Aitken

One of my favorite things in the world just ended: Song 1 by Doug Aitken, which was an exhibit that was up at the Hirshhorn from March 22-May 20. In the course of those two months, I went four times to watch this film projected on the circular facade of the museum. And since it started, I have been trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes it so special to me. In many ways this was a simple piece of artwork: a film, without a narrative, set to various arrangements of what is also in many ways a simple love song: "I Only Have Eyes for You." And I think this simplicity is part of it. Each time I went, I went with the same person, and the beauty and simplicity of that repetition, of that particular relationship, that particular slice of human community, is also bound up with the beauty I find in this piece of art. But somehow, in spite of that repetition, each time was different. Each time that person and I had grown and changed, our relationship moved to a slightly different place, our lives progressing in this city in which we live, in the rooms and offices and parks we inhabit. Each time we would arrive and leave at a different moment, come upon the film at a different scene, sit in a different place, the environment around the film altered and changed, once by the constant buzz and hum of tour buses, partially blocking the view, teenagers pouring through the doors to gaze for ten minutes before being told to board the bus again for a head count. Another time I was distracted by the sound of dog tags and barking as an unruly dog jumped and wandered about, his owners unable to control him. And once, I had to leave earlier than I wanted to, because I got too cold and began to shiver in the night air of early May. And in all of these instances, the film played on, lighting up the National Mall with the colors and images and sounds of human ordinariness. But I think this is what Song 1 is about: change in repetition, beauty in familiarity, community in isolation. As Daoud Tyler-Ameen from NPR Music explains of this piece:

"As overwhelming and isolating as cities may be, they're exciting too. In exchange for the daily trial of pushing through crowds of strangers, we occasionally stumble upon people we really connect with — and when that happens, everything else gets the volume turned down. Which happens to be precisely what "I Only Have Eyes for You" is all about:

I don't know if we're in a garden
Or on a crowded avenue
You are here, and so am I
Maybe millions of people go by
But they all disappear from view

Those moments, admittedly, come few and far between. Song 1reminds us what goes on the rest of the time. By necessity, we all gird ourselves against the crush of stories that happen all around us in daily life. That's true of the lonely giants on screen, who sing to themselves rather than engaging one another — and of the viewers below, who watch in silent reverie, barely aware of their neighbors. Side by side, people indulge private moments in a very public place."
But where Ameen sees Song 1 reminding us of "what goes on the rest of the time." I see it as reminding me of those few and far between moments of connection and community. Because it is as if the characters (if we can call them that) in the film are remembering these moments, or longing for them, or both. They are singing about a moment in which a connection is so strong that the larger world disappears, and don't we all long for those kinds of connections and cherish them when they come? And this is what I think may make Song 1 so special because it is just that. Sitting under the night sky those four times and looking up at this film, listening to the song again and again beside a person who also constitutes one of those few and far between moments of connection, I found the world fading away, even as the environment around me also took on a new sharpness, as if someone had focused the image and turned up the volume. It was like my memory of certain poems, which demand so much of my attention that I see and hear nothing else, but at the same time they are so profound they heighten my awareness, like that sensitivity to touch that comes in the midst of a fever or how the entire world seems to shimmer just a bit after you kiss someone. Song 1 is in itself one of the moments of connection to be cherished and held and remembered. Because those moments come in the countless forms of beauty and awe and astonishment that this unimaginable universe holds. And in this sense, Song I is supremely beautiful.

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