City of Glass: Tom Vanderbilt on Doug Aitken at MoMA

Article excerpt

THE IMPLICATIONS of the glass-curtain wall for both cinema and architecture were delightfully suggested in Jacques Tati's monumental Playtime (1967), a film shot in wildly expansive, stunningly deep-focused 70 mm--critic Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that this was Tati's vision of the shape of contemporary life--and which took as one of its central characters modernism itself. No doubt inspired by Paris's edge-city La Defense development begun a few years earlier, the film's exorbitant set (dubbed "Tativille") features buildings comprising a wilderness of mirrors and windows through which Tati's human figures (mostly tourists, aptly) struggle to navigate, crossing one another's paths but somehow failing to connect. We see a workman asking a building security guard for a light, not realizing that a clear wall stands between them; we see the old city, the "Paris" of Eiffel, visible only as the fleeting, distant reflection of a glass door opening in the right light; we peer into ground-floor apartments whose windows frame inhabitants like images on television (which, of course, these tenants are watching). In Playtime building facades become both lens and screen, often at once, as when Tati's hapless Monsieur Hulot, lost in liminal space, finds himself unable to distinguish between an object and its reflection, between interior and exterior. The new transparency of modern architecture, Tati seemed to be hinting, might serve more as a distancing mechanism.

Flash forward nearly half a century. We have been living with the dizzying perspectives of Tativille for most, if not all, of our lives. The glass curtain has been internalized, made metaphorical. The showroom-apartment dwellers of Playtime have morphed into characters on reality shows. The city pulses with even more tourists, even more information. Data packets from other time zones whisk through glass walls. We try to avoid missed connections with social-networking software and locational GPS. Snapping photographs with our cell phones, forwarding them to friends, we have reached the point where our own images now move faster than we do (as the past nips at the heels of the future). And yet, despite all this, or because of it, there is still an abundance of what might be called Hulot moments, in which we find ourselves temporarily out of joint with the city around us, where we lose ourselves in a thought that is remembered only later, where an unexpected event forces us from our intended path and into unfamiliar terrain, where illusion and reality bleed together in a slow dissolve.

In many ways, this elusive experience of modernity is the subject of Doug Aitken's Sleepwalkers, 2007, a public work cosponsored by New York's Creative Time and the Museum of Modern Art, whose exterior walls of glass and granite play host to the piece's massive film projections this month. Indeed, comprising a series of loosely interlinked narratives that follow five characters throughout the course of somnambulant urban journeys, the artwork was conceived by Aitken years ago when he had a Hulot-like moment of his own, walking in midtown Manhattan late at night after dinner with friends. "I looked up and started to become aware and impressed by how vertical the space was," he recalls in his New York studio. "I'd lived in Manhattan but never thought about it. I found myself looking at the space, the time of night, the time of year, and had the feeling of suddenly moving from a very social environment to a very isolating one." But what if those mute slabs that surrounded Aitken on his late-night walk actually had something to say? What if, beyond looking into windows at empty still lifes of after-hours offices, one saw stories reflected--projected--back? Whose stories would they be? Would they have a beginning and an ending? Accordingly, Sleepwalkers in its narrative structure plays with the fragmentary nature of the city, where any block holds multitudes of stories weaving in and out of view, and where any single route might cross untold numbers of these stories, a human network even more complex than the city's obscured veins of infrastructure. …