Urban drive-in movie on Manhattan’s sidewalks

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Think of it as the gallery becoming the work of art. For the next month, every evening from 5.00pm to 10.00pm, Sleepwalkers, a work comprising eight 60ft moving images, will be projected on to the exterior walls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan. It is as though MoMA has turned itself inside out, flaunting its art over the city’s sidewalks and making this vivid installation – viewable free from many public vantage points – a beacon of pulsating colour and light, an urban drive-in movie for tourists, commuters and residents.

“Cinema has reached stalemate. Directors resort to more violence, more sex. I aim to open things up, take moving images out of the cinema into a nocturnal urban space,” says Doug Aitken, the 38-year-old creator of this ambitious, costly and complex project. “I want to make challenging work accessible to pedestrians, to the general public, yet transform people’s experience and concept of the city.”

Aitken has a decade-long record of creating imaginative film and video projects around the world, from China, Berlin, Glasgow and Argentina to the Venice Biennale and London’s Serpentine. Sleepwalkers was conceived specifically for the museum’s expanses of glass, steel, tile and granite. Six films (five character narratives, one consisting of “ambient” atmospherics of skies and landscape) are projected on to three sides of the museum. As they run, they continuously recombine, offering new juxtapositions in a repeating cycle.

Three years in the planning, it involved a team of more than 200 people and took nine months to film in locations all over New York, from the Bronx to Staten Island, from Time Square to Queens. Creative Time, New York’s oldest public art organisation, facilitated the event, together with MoMA’s new Department of Media.

Projections are nothing new. Aitken is building on the work of pioneers such as Krzysztof Wodiczko, who for 25 years has staged projections on to public monuments such as Nelson’s Column in London and Brooklyn’s Memorial Arch, and Jenny Holzer, whose work involves the projection of arresting, sometimes politically challenging messages. Sleepwalkers lacks a political thrust, but benefits from new, sophisticated electronic means to deliver a powerful urban parable.

Aitken says technical developments do not drive the project or concern him. “I let the project create its own vehicle. It’s all about content, ideas,” he says. Yet with its new powerful 25,000-lumen projectors, satellite signals and high-definition digitalisation, Sleepwalkers would have been impossible a few years ago.

The five stories follow five archetypal New Yorkers through the course of 12 hours as they wake, shower, and set out through the city to their jobs. Tilda Swinton is a self-possessed but vulnerable office executive; the drummer Ryan Donowho is a young bike messenger; the Brazilian musician Seu Jorge is an electrician working on the Time Square LED billboards; the singer Cat Power is a bored postal worker, endlessly sorting letters; and Donald Sutherland is a “suit” who eventually flips out of his aloof severity to tap-dance on the bonnet of a yellow taxi.

Although their lives never overlap, Aitken sees their progress as “one tightly woven landscape, their actions synchronised”. Indeed, this orchestrated synchronisation is one of the joys of the main multiscreen installation that occupies all three walls around MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Standing at its centre, one is enfolded by five different images that constantly join, fracture, blur and repeat. Unexpected reflections on the glass walls add to a feeling of architectural volume, sculptural voids and broken planes.

The editing is exact, syncopated and clever. Cups (paper for the biker, fine china for the businessman, pottery mug for the electrician) stack and spin; fingers rub, fiddle, grip, and one character bites her nails. Kaleidoscopic patterns created by circles (light fixtures, cups, wheels) and lines (long perspectives of corridors, windows, pipes) expand and intersect.

Around MoMA’s west side, two parallel screens provide a fast way to see all five 13-minute loop films. Here one is more aware of the story line as each pair of characters enact their normal professional nocturnal routine, until suddenly, towards the end of the segment, each explodes into unexpected action. Swinton saws at a violin on the Lincoln Center stage; the biker attacks his drums in the subway; the mail girl spins feverishly; Seu Jorge makes a lasso of his electric cables. From there abstraction takes over as each screen splits into three or four sections, and the protagonists dissolve into the ether, part of the city’s collective dreams.

Aitken’s main analogy is the metropolis as a living organism. “I see the city as resembling a human body in every way, from the internet cables and subway tunnels that are its veins, to the people and vehicles fuelled by gas, coffee and alcohol that surge through those veins like blood. This piece is not superimposed on the building, it is the building.”

His portrayal of an individual’s isolation amid crowded streets is more convincing – but why use celebrity actors to play these so-called anonymous figures? The curator Klaus Biesenbach says that Aitken wanted familiar faces on the screen to provide “resonance”. “He wants a big-screen Hollywood feel,” Biesenbach adds.

The museum world is as competitive as any other. While some say MoMA is merely riding the bandwagon of public art, Sleepwalkers provides something special. To come upon it unexpectedly is to be amazed. Even if you are prepared for an artistic extravaganza, the effect is still spellbinding. Don’t miss it.

‘Doug Aitken: Sleepwalkers’ is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until February 12. Tel +1 212 708 9400.

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