Last year I was asked to speak to the in-house creative team at the CIA in Washington, DC, and I arrived a day earlier to take in some sightseeing. I hadn’t been to the country’s capital in over 20 years. Although it was a very hot and sticky July afternoon, I hit the ground running and tried to take in as much as I could. After visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the Smithsonian Space Museum, I stumbled into the Hirshorn Gallery, a contemporary art museum, and found myself drawn to a small and dark round room bathed in black. On one wall I saw black and white still images lap dissolving into each other. As I looked closer I noticed all of the images were of one particular scene taken from a multitude of different angles. I was captivated.
The installation, Sections of a Happy Moment, captured a split moment in the life of an Asian family playing with a ball on a concrete playground. Surrounded by towering buildings, each subject is frozen in time, laughing and smiling around a ball suspended in mid-air. At one moment I was up close and personal, and then a moment later I was looking down from a bird’s eye view. I felt like a voyeur—spying, stealing a secret glimpse into a family’s private experience, a memory long gone. The effect was mesmerizing, and the accompanying minimalist sound track of Brian Eno-esque ambient piano made the scene even more chilling. I stayed for 15 minutes or so and then left to explore the rest of the gallery but was soon drawn back where I sat for another 30 minutes, totally engaged.
When I returned home, I found out this extraordinary piece was by David Claerbout, a Belgian artist who works with photography, drawing and sound; he is known mostly for his video installations that combine moving and still images to unsettle the delineation between past and present.
Each of us has a cherished collection of “happy moments” — our favorite snapshots, frozen in time that we hold dear and carry with us throughout our lives. And my experience at the Hirshorn Museum on that hot July afternoon became another “happy moment” in my life.