If you currently have no plans to be in Los Angeles before January 15th, when Doug Aitken: Electric Earth closes at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, make them, as the exhibition is a must see (it will also be shown at The Modern in Fort Worth, May 28-September 24, 2017). The exhibition is well worth the journey as it itself presents a journey, one whose images and experiences will long be impressed upon the eye and mind. The forty-eight-year-old Aitken was raised and trained as an artist in the Los Angeles area–its landscapes, cityscapes and sunsets figure prominently in his art–and he has long been familiar with The Geffen, whose spaces he has reconfigured so as to offer multiple paths of exploration to his work of the past twenty years in this, his first retrospective.
Those who have seen the artist’s work in the past will know that a single video installation by Aitken offers a powerful, memorable experience. Encountering several such pieces together is at once awe-inspiring and deeply moving. His time-based work is experiential and sensorial, exquisitely beautiful and profoundly humane. Each proceeds from ideas about everyday objects and situations and represents a rethinking of these things as well as of the parameters of video, photography, sculpture, architecture, storytelling, the integration of music into artwork and more.
I first saw electric earth (1999), the tile piece of the exhibition, at the Whitney Biennial in 2000. As at the Whitney, the viewer enters a darkened space at The Geffen to find projected on the back wall a young black man in a motel room. He then ventures out into the city at night, a city devoid of people, but filled with storefronts and signage, parking lots, a laundromat and more. As he moves, he begins to dance in jerky, seemingly “electrified” movements, accompanied by ambient city sounds. His progress through the city appears on seven additional wall-sized projections that are distributed through four adjoining rooms, so that the viewer travels through space with him.
While the multi-screen video projection was by no means Aitken’s invention (brilliant works by Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman, Isaac Julien, Shirin Neshat, William Kentridge, Diana Thater, Pipilloti Rist and, more recently, Ragnar Gunnarsson, all of whom work in this mode are called to mind), in the year 2000 the multi-room architectural environment was startlingly new and revealed unrealized potential for the medium with regard to both the immersion of the spectator and storytelling. Electric earth was also distinctive because of the nature of Aitken’s vision. Although the action seemed to occur in real space and time, the camera lingered on details, often offering ravishingly beautiful vignettes–a lone shopping cart in a parking lot, an open cash register, the young man’s profile.
Aitken’s rethinking of both the narrative and architectural possibilities of video was carried further in a series of works that were originally designed to be projected on the exteriors of buildings–sleepwalkers (2007), a six channel video seen on the facade of MoMA in New York, migration (empire), first presented at the 55th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 2008, and SONG 1 (2012), which wrapped around the 360-degree facade of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC. All are presented at The Geffen in forms configured to operate within the interior space.
That said, it is amazing to consider that SONG 1–which was originally conceived at colossal scale, its circumference measuring 725 feet–was rendered with such precision and attention to detail that it stands up to scrutiny when seen close-hand, reduced to a circumference of 100 feet at The Geffen. Here, seven videos appear as blended projections on a freestanding cylindrical aluminum and PVC screen that can be viewed both from inside and out (most viewers seat themselves in the interior). In the 35-minute video, an extended cast of characters, which includes Tilda Swinton, who was also featured in sleepwalkers, variously sing a familiar pop song that dates to the 1930s, I Only Have Eyes for You. The fascination of this piece stems not only from the visual (the “eyes” cited in the title), each of its shots framed and meaningfully composed, but also from the hypnotic quality of the repeated song and the viewer’s circumnavigation and physical involvement which make for a richly sensorial experience.
Aitken’s migration (empire; 2008) may be one of my favorite works ever. Its title is indicative of a journey, the piece as a whole offering a portrait of the American landscape (the images tellingly projected on “billboard sculptures”). In this piece, a series of wild animals occupy the interiors of nondescript motel rooms. The bland sameness of these rooms is part of the point, the fact that one can travel across the United States and find oneself in nearly identical spaces. Inhabiting the rooms are a horse, raccoon, red fox, bison, owl, mountain lion and collection of rabbits, and more, all indigenous to America. Each of the animals appears calm despite the confined and unnatural surroundings. Some interact with features of the room: a beaver takes a bath, the bison rubs up against the bed, the mountain lion wrestles with the covers, the owl lets loose a snowfall (and rise) of feathers. Accompanied by music, the work, which is simultaneously projected on three large screens that subdivide a large gallery space, is at once thought provoking (i.e., animal and environmental conservation), mesmerizing and gorgeous.
The retrospective presents a comprehensive overview of Aitken’s work in video and includes, other than the works mentioned here, numerous single channel pieces, about two hours of which are offered in a specially constructed theatre at the back of the exhibition space. Scattered throughout the exhibition are intriguing works in other media, including a host of photo-based works, collages and sculptures, many of the latter consisting of a single word written with mirrors (such as MORE (shattered pour), 2013, and NOW (Blue Mirror), 2014). Featured as well is a large-scale, indoor Land Art/Sound Art project, Sonic Fountain II (2013/2015). This piece consists of an enormous hole in the gallery floor filled with white-tinted water, the debris from the hole’s excavation scattered about the darkened space. Water falls into the pool from pipes suspended above at different rates controlled by a computer program, the sound of the falling water, ranging from meager drips to cascades, captured by underwater microphones. The experience is at once futuristic (a devastated Earth?) and primeval and points to Aitken’s other Land Art projects, such as the three mirrored underwater “pavilions” that are be installed at Catalina Island near Los Angeles in late October.
Aiken’s work, then, spans many media and genres and to my mind particularly telling in this regard is a single shot that appears in Acid Modernism (2012), a video made by the artist to document the architecture and interiors of his house in Venice, California. This uniquely personal and autobiographical video, which plays on a television monitor at The Geffen, reveals that in his private living space, the artist has rethought certain basic and fundamental things, like tables and stairs, which he has redesigned as structures with the capacity to produce music. Microphones installed below the house relay sounds of the earth and water. Hanging above the bed in the master bedroom is a large red thought ballon inscribed with a single word in all caps in blue: “FUTURE.” As The Geffen celebrates his past achievements in this wondrous retrospective, Aitken’s prime directive is to rethink new artistic possibilities–the road not yet travelled.