Just as Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” is celebrating his 21st birthday, Seattle Art Museum is set to unveil its brand-new public art commission: Doug Aitken’s “Mirror,” a permanent LED installation that wraps around the museum’s northwest corner, that will monitor changes in SAM’s immediate vicinity and reflect them in ever-changing imagery.
“Mirror” has been imagined not only specifically for our Emerald City — the beating urban heart of some of the wildest and most spectacular natural terrain on the continent — but for the very corner where Union meets First Avenue. Virginia Wright, the widow of Bagley Wright who had commissioned “Mirror” shortly before he died, puts it like this: “Something was needed to mark the building as a museum rather than an office building.”
“ ‘Mirror’ came about through a sense of curiosity and frustration,” says Aitken, a Los Angeles- and New York-based artist. “We all occupy urban spaces: gray corridors surrounded by structures with little or no life to them. I was interested in the idea of urban spaces that could live in relationship to what was happening around them, as opposed to being fixed and rigid.” He intends “Mirror” to transform the experience, as if you were facing the museum and then turned and looked in the opposite direction. Immediately the “gray corridor” of First Avenue is replaced by vistas of Puget Sound and Bainbridge Island and the Olympics.
Aitken’s ambition for “Mirror” is extraordinary. Just like he finds architecture’s fixed nature frustrating, he intends this new piece to escape the static condition of most artworks. He wants it to be a “living system,” genuinely timeless and constantly changing.
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He points out that art history narratives depend on works of art that “leave the studio fixed and remain inanimate for the rest of their existence” and that serve as indicators of the particular moment when they were made. This is every bit as true of the “Hammering Man,” despite the repetitive slow-motion of his rigid left arm, as it is for the 1665 Rembrandt self-portrait that’s currently visiting Seattle Art Museum from Kenwood House. Instead Aitken sees “Mirror” as something that won’t be fixed in time: “I wanted to create a work that I could walk away from and let it live on its own.”
But what is fascinating about “Mirror” is that it doesn’t live altogether on its own. Aitken might have walked away from it, but he has left it in the company of everything else that happens around it: the light in the sky above it, the number of passers-by and the speed of cars driving down First Avenue, even how warm the air is. These are the stimuli that “Mirror” responds to in composing the unique sequences of images that appear on its LED screen and shoot up and down the exterior of the building.
The visual elements that make up these sequences took Aitken “hundreds and hundreds of hours of filming.” He imagined the museum at the center of a series of concentric circles — the first encompassing only the immediate vicinity, the next the whole of downtown Seattle and then, after a number of others radiating further and further afield, a final huge circle reaching as far as the Pacific Coast and Mount Rainier. Then, as Aitken explains, “I used this as a dividing system and filmed as much as I could within each ring. And I wasn’t looking for the ‘greatest hits’ or visual clichés, but for what I happened to find there, because a texture or a surface can be just as important as a silhouetted mountain ridge.”
As though to reflect the particular nature of Seattle’s artistic heritage, Aitken conceives “Mirror’s” processes in musical terms — “There was no real blueprint that I knew of in any visual art,” he says — and he parallels the way in which “Mirror’s” imagery evolves to “structures within music, especially minimalist music.” (It’s not coincidental that Sunday’s “happening” to introduce “Mirror” to the public will feature an appearance and performance of work by minimalist composer Terry Riley.) “These are repetitious structures that in the end turn out not be repetitious at all,” is how he puts it. And the appeal of music connects to Aitken’s most basic intentions for his new work. “Music is like a liquid. You can never hold on to it, and you can never freeze it. With ‘Mirror,’ I wanted to make liquid architecture.”
Virginia Wright is delighted with the results: “I think Doug Aitken is that rare combination, an artist who is both critically esteemed and, at the same time, popular with the general public. I have no doubt ‘Mirror’ will become a Seattle landmark.”
Robert Ayers: email@example.com