Friday, May 18, 2012

Still Life With Robin: Song1

by Peggy Robin

Today I will attempt to play two unfamiliar roles: art critic and website content provider, both for the sound/light show,  Song1 , currently running each evening on the exterior walls of the Hirshhorn Museum. I’m doing this for two reasons: 1. I loved the show so much that I want everyone in Washington who hasn’t already done so to run out and see it -- and there are only three nights left! And 2: Somebody’s got to give out the practical info you need to enjoy the show. I came to this latter conclusion after I spent way too much time on Google, just trying to find out what time to arrive, how long the show lasts, and where’s the best vantage point for viewing.

What I found on the internet was pretty much useless. The Hirshhorn’s website , where you would expect to find whatever you need to know, is the artsiest thing imaginable...but devoid of any actual content. You position your mouse over the Song1 photo, and immediately, before you even have a chance to click, a beautiful series of image start sliding along, and you have no idea where you'll end up or when they’ll stop. It's maddening! Whoever designed this thing, go back to working on your dissertation in Fine Arts, and let’s hope the Smithsonian gives the contract for web design to someone who knows how to provide some actual, printed copy that the tourists can, you know, read.

Well, there are lots of other sources on the web about art events in DC, I figured, leaving the Hirshhorn site in befuddlement. But after checking four more sites  But after checking four more sites --The Washington PostDCistCity Paper, and the Huffington Post's DC Around Town page--  I still knew little more than that the show begins "at dusk." I could not find a word about which side of the Hirshhorn offered the best view. Or whether I would encounter crowds and would need to arrive early to stake out a good spot. What kind of seating is there? These are the kinds of thing you should be able to find out in advance. And once I failed to find them, I resolved to put these kinds of tips in my review.

The main thing you need to know is that this show needs darkness. True, it begins at 8:00 pm. That is, the music begins playing, and after ten or fifteen minutes, you can just make out some light shadows playing along the blank walls of the building, more or less in time to the music. But it will be at least another 45 minutes until you can begin to discern the colors of the images. And even then, not the sharp, vibrant colors nor (at other times) the deep, moody tones the artist meant for you to see against the blackness of the night.

So the best thing is to arrive no earlier than 9:00pm. The show goes on until midnight. It does not matter where in the music/image cycle you arrive. It’s a repeating loop, projected 360 degrees around the building, and there are no transitions or stops between segments. The whole show runs about 40 minutes. My advice would be to see it through at least twice.

You don't have to worry about crowds. The Hirshhorn is a huge building, and there's viewing space all around. You'll be able to choose your space, and change your view, as you like. That's worthwhile, as you may well want to get a close view, a long view (including the lit-up Washington Monument in the background) and then settle in for a full viewing of the loop at just the distance you prefer.  The worst mistake, as I see it, would be to camp out on the soft and inviting lawn in front of the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden on Jefferson Drive. I saw lots of people sprawled out on blankets, never moving from that spot. The problem is that they were seeing the Song1 images broken up by the long, horizontal window cut-out that breaks up the otherwise smooth, rounded facade of the building facing them at that location.

After viewing Song1 all the way through the first time around from the 7th Street sidewalk, I decided to walk around the entire perimeter of the Hirshhorn to view the show from all the different perspectives. When I was done with my walk, I felt like addressing the lawn-campers during a lull in the music to let them know, if they would just get up and move 100 yards to the east, from the corner of Jefferson and 7th Avenue, they could view the images as if on a great, rounded expanse of screen, just like in Cinemascope. That, I think, gave the viewer the best appreciation of the artist's work. (I see I have not mention's the artist's name yet, so let me insert the credit here: Bravo, Doug Aitken!)

If you want to be able to sit in comfort, bring along a stadium cushion to soften the seating available on the bench-height garden walls you'll find along both Jefferson Drive and 7th Street. Or don't worry about finding a spot on the wall: Just bring along your own light, folding lawn chair. (Crazy Creek ( makes a light, portable one, with or without legs, that is quite comfortable and will last forever.)

My final piece of advice: Other than this column devoted to practical tips for viewing, I would say don't read the reviews of the piece as artwork until after you've seen the show. You'll want to be surprised by the play of images and sound, at least the first time around. You'll want to notice on your own the timing of certain images to the lyrics of the song, and let the serendipity of the whole event in its surroundings --with the buses, cyclists, joggers, and commuters going by-- work its magic. Afterwards, you might enjoy seeing it again on the internet, on a small screen, with the artist's commentary, or the art critic's insights layered on.

When you're ready for that, here are a few to start you off.

From DCist:

From City Paper:

From the Washington Post:,1220692/critic-review.html

And from the Huffington Post -- including a video of the artist discussing his work:


Still Life With Robin is published on Fridays on the Cleveland Park Listserv and All Life Is Local.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! I had a horrible time with the website, also, tried to call for information and learned many things including how to park at the Udzur Hazy Center, not very relevant. I needed exactly what you provided - times, best location, etc. Will go tonight, yay!