Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: The Sleepwalkers Box

The Sleepwalkers Box by Doug Aitken
Princeton Architectural Press and DFA Records, 2012
Box Set: 96-page book, poster, vinyl disc, two flipbooks, cd, dvd

How does one document an artwork that is temporary, fleeting? Artist Doug Aitken's 2007 Sleepwalkers installation projected on the facades of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is a good example. Photos, like the ones I captured on my chilly visit, give a sense of the scale and imagery, but they fail to convey many of the important aspects of the piece: timing, movement, narrative, juxtaposition. As well, MoMA's book on Sleepwalkers gives plenty of background and insight into the film installation, but those same aspects are missing. Enter the handsome Sleepwalkers Box, a limited edition, multimedia "remix" produced with the artist, Princeton Architectural Press, and DFA Records, and inspired by Andy Warhol's 1960s journal Aspen.

Sleepwalkers Box arrives just as Aitken fuses film and architecture in another city: Song 1 covers the drum-shaped Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC until the middle of next month. Both Sleepwalkers and Song 1 project various images upon a building's facade, yet in very different ways. At MoMA, the seven clips are projected on different flat facades, so each clip preserves its respective rectangular frame. The architecture is merely a surface for projected light; the glass and metal are a backdrop for images that don't relate to the interior of the building, even as the spaces behind the glass facades spill through the film to complicate the division between the two realms. At the Hirshhorn, Aitken sets up the projectors to seamlessly merge seven films around the whole perimeter of the concrete drum. From any vantage point, the impression is that architecture and image are one. What Sleepwalkers and Song 1 share is the inability to be grasped in their entirety; MoMA's surfaces are disconnected, and the Hirshhorn's cylinder is 360 degrees. Perception in fragments unite the two pieces, perhaps a commentary on the fragmentary nature of cities and their inhabitants.

When I experienced Sleepwalkers in 2007, the narrative -- or lack thereof, depending on one's interpretation -- was not evident to me, stemming from it being cold and not wanting to hang around too long, and the fact that the disconnected projections kept one moving around to experience the other clips. On the DVD that comes with the box set, a specially produced edit of the film makes this narrative clear. Needless to say, the title is apt for the way the film portrays the various characters in their disconnected urban milieus. What stood out for me -- while taking in the various images, texts, and sounds included in the box set -- is how carefully planned and produced are the different clips. In some cases they appear to be straight out of a high-budget Hollywood movie, but at other times the images resemble music videos or the painted films of Stan Brakhage; seen all together, their timing is exquisite.

Sleepwalkers is a multifaceted work that deserves a similar archival treatment. Sleepwalkers Box captures the beauty and poetry of the images and music (the latter I don't remember from the 2007 visit, but I was impressed by a number of the tracks on the CD), sparking one's interest for the next iteration of Sleepwalkers next year when the Miami Museum of Art opens its Herzog & de Meuron-designed building.