Doug Aitken by Katherine Satorius
Regen Projects | Los Angeles
September 12 – October 17, 2009
Originally published in ArtUS 28
Doug Aitken’s first major hometown exhibition since 2005 consists of four interlocking parts, filling Regen Projects’ two galleries and weaving between interior and exterior space. Migration (2008), the latest in Aitken’s series of ambitious video installations (it previously screened at the 55th Carnegie International and New York’s 303 Gallery), is presented in two forms, running during business hours on a specially fabricated, scaled-down digital billboard inside Regen Projects II and playing continuously from dusk to dawn on two adjacent walls of the main gallery’s exterior. The double projection can be seen by cars driving either direction on Santa Monica Boulevard, as suits a work partly about isolation and repetitive travel. Meanwhile, a collection of recent light box pieces occupies the main gallery’s interior—seven illuminated photographs manipulated into words and geometric shapes. The glowing image of a livestock auction building fills letters that spell out “FATE” (the handle comes up, the hammer comes down, 2009); a triptych of human silhouettes have hearts represented by pictures of a cave opening filled with sunlight (Heatwave, 2009). Finally, a few miles away, in the sky above LA><ART, an actual billboard, albeit one too diminutive to deliver the proper impact, displays the “FATE” photograph, bringing the exhibition full circle.
But migration is the obvious centerpiece—a mesmerizing, melancholic 24-minute epic in which a procession of animals and birds mostly common to North America inhabits a sequence of banal rooms in the kinds of motels that populate lonely stretches of the American highway. They carry out instinctual acts, engaging with the strange surroundings as they would their normal habitats: a cougar gnaws the bed pillows and wrestles the sheets to the floor; a buffalo butts heads with the standard-issue lamps; a beaver paddles in the bathtub. Aitken’s camera follows with a reverent gaze, lingering on bristly fur, velvety antlers, dusty hoofs and glassy eyes, closing in on each protagonist’s legendary attributes—the owl’s stare, the horse’s musculature—playing up the disconnect between this cast of intricately made living creatures and their manufactured surrounds.
People have grown accustomed to understanding themselves as the foreground against nature’s backdrop. Migration inverts this convention. Interspersed shots of American landscape (the video roughly describes an east-west cross-country journey) show evidence of human activity: trains and barges advance; oil derricks peck the ground; electricity hums. But like the presence of animals concealed behind rocks and vegetation, human existence in these scenes is ghostly.
Lonesome, spectral beauty has long characterized Aitken’s work. The famous still from electric earth (2000) of a solitary red shopping cart in an empty parking lot beneath a brooding sky stands to become an iconic turn-of-the-millennium image, reflecting apocalyptic hysteria and twilight. His methods of transmission maximize the numinous tone. A film or video is already spectral, but, like Bill Viola, Aitken doesn’t just make videos; he makes immersive, monumental viewing experiences that approximate communications from the beyond. Like sleepwalkers, projected in giant scale on the outer walls of MoMA in 2007, flickering over the upturned faces of passersby like a divine vision, migration aims to hold viewers in thrall. But with Aitken, the portentous tone is cut with absurdity, irony, and self-aware wit: migration, for instance, has a horse watching grainy footage of running wild horses on the motel TV. No sooner do we pity him than we remember it’s all just a setup; we’re caught red-handed, projecting human anxieties onto another creature’s mind. In another scene, a full moon dissolves with comic conspicuity into a globe light bulb. Aitken isn’t taking an easy jab at the failure of human design to live up to nature—for all the comparisons between manmade and natural realms in his work, aesthetic judgment is never the issue. On the contrary, he elevates everything in frame to the same plane of mirage-like beauty, from the texture of fox fur to a low-lit parking lot to the acid aqua surface of a swimming pool.
Human consciousness, and its intersection with the exterior world, is Aitken’s great obsession. The pathos that seeps from his work comes less from despair over what we have wrought on ourselves and on our planet than from a kind of dissonance between how we are compelled to view the physical world, as a place that reflects and somehow listens to us, and probable reality. In the final scene of migration, owl feathers and feathers from a torn-open pillow mingle in black space—a reminder that the dichotomy between the natural and manmade, on which so much art of recent decades relies, is a made-up distinction, since from an ecological perspective there is no difference, no actual separation between foreground and background, no “environment.” “The ‘environment’ is nothing but the phenotypical expression of DNA code,” as ecological theorist Timothy Morton has put it: “A beaver’s DNA doesn’t stop at the end of its whiskers, but at the end of its dam.” Which is also to say that, though we like to believe that we have conquered wild frontiers, we have only been building habitat, carrying out our program like beavers and foxes. In this light, the frontier mentality on which the West was built seems rather ironic. Migration touches subtly and intelligently on such ironies, and its very title contains another: there’s no clear direction to migrate anymore now that the east and west have both been colonized; there is only repetition, back and forth—a restless situation that echoes the state of affairs in contemporary art.