The power of Doug Aitkenâ€™s installation work lies in his ability to capture the essence of place, the elemental quality of a particular landscape, and in â€œSleepwalkersâ€, his first public art-work in the US, he does just that.
â€œSleepwalkersâ€ is comprised of five movies projected on eight exterior surfaces of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The multi-screen moving image installation is enormous in scale yet it makes way for a most intimate personal experience.
The videos tell the tale of five (larger than life) would-be New Yorkers, an office worker, a business man, a postal worker, an electrician and a bicycle messenger, portrayed respectively by Tilda Swinton, Donald Sutherland, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Seu Jorge, and Ryan Donowho.
Each character has his or her own thirteen-minute film but they all share the same exact storyline. They do their thing independently of one another but at the same time they trade or borrow images and elements from one anotherâ€™s stories. They also trade places on the screens as the individual films move from one exterior surface to another, sometimes abruptly sometimes seamlessly.
You can leave the action at any point in any one of the stories and pick it up at the same or equivalent point in any other of the stories. The five get up as the sun goes down, they get ready to leave their rooms, they leave their rooms, they go out into the New York night, and they go on to their work or job, and somewhere in there each character has his or her own moment of spinning virtuosity before the end of the night.
Tilda Swintonâ€™s office workerâ€™s character lands on a performing stage where she plays a violin. Donald Sutherlandâ€™s highly successful businessman jumps on the roof of the cab thatâ€™s just run him down and joyously performs a tap dance. But these moments of departure are treated less as departure from the characterâ€™s set nocturnal routine than a continuum of the style of visual story building that incorporates or at least speaks to the idea of New York City as a cultural community.
Aitkenâ€™s imagery captures the intensity and the energy of moving through New York at night. There are several stunning sequences of images of the city that slide visually from one enormous viewing surface onto the adjacent viewing surface. So while though story or storyline itself is not remarkably interesting the work is riveting. The installation has power of whatâ€™s going on in Times Square at the same time engages the public audience in a provocative and meaningful way.
Thereâ€™s a lot of talk about Aitkenâ€™s deconstruction of the narrative but here the narrative remains intact, moving forward in full linear fashion. Interjecting a series of still images is not a tool of deconstruction but rather serves to change pace and move the story forward in a visually interesting way. Spreading the narrative out on a number of different screens, even if theyâ€™re facing different directions, and repeating them in different sequences doesnâ€™t change the essential linear qualities of the narrative.
Does tearing the pages out of a novel and laying them out on the floor in two different rooms alter the actual narrativeâ€™s linear qualities? No of course not. But what it does do is involve the reader in a different manner by altering the way the reader might approach the accessibility of that novel. And this is what Aitken does, alters the accessibility of his visual narrative. He fractures the vehicle then asks the viewer to climb on board where or when they might as it moves along.
There is no soundtrack beyond what the streets of New York have to offer. Curiously though all those sounds drop out until you hear what sounds and feels like silence. The silence is visceral, perhaps because itâ€™s an internal silence as the sirens and the horns donâ€™t really go away. Somehow when standing on 53rd street, or in the middle of mid-town block in the empty lot just west of MoMA, or in the confines of the museumâ€™s walled in outdoor sculpture garden looking up at Aitkenâ€™s enormous moving images, the noises of the city dim. They dim in the exact same way they do in that moment of the passing subway cars or in the same stillness created by the glimpse through an apartment window of another New Yorkerâ€™s life from the safe distance of the backseat of taxi stopped at a traffic light.
â€œSleepwalkersâ€ is very much like that moment when your subway train passes another in the tunnel and you see the passengers in the other train. You always look and you look in earnest as if youâ€™ll see something worth seeing. And you do, sort of. You never look in earnest at whatâ€™s going on in your own subway car. You donâ€™t want to actually interact with strangers on a subway: you want the safe barrier that will allow you to â€œlookâ€ and â€œpeer.â€ Itâ€™s almost voyeuristic but not really since itâ€™s unsolicited by you, plus itâ€™s really a moment in your life. Thatâ€™s the lure of â€œSleepwalkers.â€
In a way weâ€™re not seeing anything we canâ€™t see anywhere anytime in our own lives but thatâ€™s not the point - or maybe it is. Maybe itâ€™s exactly the point and the job or a job of art: to show us what we can see in our life. And Aitken does that poetically.
His work creates the opportunity of an approach, an alternate approach, to narratives of our own or of our own making. As viewers we deconstruct Aitkenâ€™s narrative, he gives us the vehicle and we construct or reconstruct the story ourselves because we have the freedom to.
Aitkenâ€™s elemental narrative of the big New York City landscape — bright lights, big city â€“ abstracted, entwines itself with the narrative of the internal landscape of the New Yorker, that 8 million stories in the naked city thing and the alone in a crowd thing, the most essential elements of the New York narrative, giving the giant â€œSleepwalkersâ€ their monumental authority equal to the experience of what is New York.
â€œSleepwalkersâ€, jointly presented by the Museum of Modern Art and Creative Time, screened January 16 - February 12, 2007, viewing was limited to night times.
Curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator of Media, MoMA and Peter Eleey, Curator and Producer, Creative Time.
Pamela A. Popeson is a playwright, multimedia artist, and art critic living in New York City. Her new play “Women’s Work” will premiere at Dramarama in New Orleans on April 14th, 2007. Popeson is a frequent contributor to NYArts Magazine and Cover Magazine, writing articles on art and art culture.