Doug Aitken: “Electric Earth” at MOCA


“migration (empire) (still),” 2008, Doug Aitken, video installation with three channels of video (color, sound), three projections, three steel and PVC screen billboard sculptures, 24:28 minutes/loop, dimensions variable
Photo: Stefan Altenburger, courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art

“Doug Aitken: Electric Earth” is the celebrated LA-based artist’s first proper mid-career survey in North America, which is kind of a big deal—and MOCA’s sprawling, ambitious exhibition clearly takes the responsibility seriously. Best known for large-scale multichannel audio and video installations, Aitken’s work makes a signature of its grand scale, and the inclusion of about half a dozen monumental works scratches his fans’ itch for spectacle with seminal, crowd-pleasing works from the last two decades. The edificial self-contained installations feel more like small theatrical pavilions than individual works of art, lending the proceedings the overall quality of a festival of experimental shorts than a conventionally understood museum exhibition. But in a sense that’s who Aitken is as an artist: a one-man festival of art and architecture.

Associated, indeed nearly synonymous, with contemporary video installation, the exhibition’s main point and well-made, is that Aitken’s interests in the medium stem more from its capacity for multiplicitous simultaneity and durationality than say, a pining for the director’s chair. He is attracted to the moving image’s inherent capacity to depict and encompass the passage of time as well as to transform qualities of space and senses of place. For example, his “breakthrough” piece, the 1997 multichannel installation diamond sea, depicts isolated stretches of the Namibian Sahara inhabited only by gem-sorting automated machinery. Constructed of three differently-scaled projections and a mural-size lightbox, the work was an early attempt to both depict and evoke the complexity and presence of a remote land and the surreal industries that shape it. Separated by decades and by mediums, the striated totemic sculptures made by collecting samples of rocks and soil from each stop on his 2013 Station to Station interstate train tour also offer alternative documentation of experiences of place, via time-collapsing, site-responsive artifacts.

Aitken’s obsession with permutations of place- and time-based narrative directs the general layout of the whole show, which is absorptive rather than chronological, in a choose-your-own-adventure ouroborus structure that can be entered into at any point, so that the viewer can perform what MOCA chief Philippe Vergne called “editing in space” by finding their own way through the material. This gestalt is heightened by the aural omnipresence of the endlessly looped pop ballad “I Only Have Eyes for You”—a lilting, David Lynchian melody belonging to the exhibition’s centerpiece Song 1 (2012)—which bleeds and drifts into nearly every room of the museum. It beckons and unsettles until one can no longer resist the pull of the enormous suspended round screens. Projecting cinematic vignettes in character-driven variations on the song within an assortment of short-form stories, the piece was originally conceived for the exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum; its siting inside the Geffen’s darkened central cavern is part Richard Serra, part drive-in theatre, part spaceship and de facto public gathering space.

Architectural scale is a central feature of Aitken’s work, but architecture itself is also a major component of its content. The infrastructure of energy, electric grids, communication systems, cities, and transitional places like highways, airports and especially hotel rooms all feature prominently in his lexicon of works and years. The charming 2010 House in which actors who turn out to be his parents sit stoically as the home which turns out to be the artist’s own is demolished around them flirts with romantic narrative as it addresses what else besides air and light is contained inside a house. Lighthouse (2012) attached an exterior video screen skin to a modernist home in the woods, from which captured images of the surrounding natural environment are projected back out into the world. The captivating and celebrated 2011 work Black Mirror actually comprises a built structure the size of a small homestead, made of reflective black surfaces, into which the viewer enters and thereupon encounters a fractal set of refractions that expands the idea of multichannel video into infinite space. The series of short video stories starring Chloe Sevigny portray a nonlinear narrative of constant travel, elusive data, rental cars, commercial flights, and hotel room after hotel room, in a pageant of fractured attention and inscrutable inner life.

Easily the best use of the motif is in 2008’s Migration (empire)—the billboard-size three-screen work in which a series of wild animals check in to pristine rented suites and are left free to have a look around. A beaver takes a swim in the tub, a big cat destroys the bedding, an owl looks really freaked out, a fox wonders what a jigsaw puzzle is… it’s irresistible. As an admittedly apparent comment on the essential incompatibility of man’s habits and industries with the order of the natural world, it has a crisp and accessible resonance. The sheer delight it offers humanizes the personality of the conceptual video art genre, even as it delivers its surreal, subliminally charged message. Similarly, Sonic Fountain II (2013-15) is an excavated hole dug into the concrete floor and filled with illuminated, mic’d-up water, surrounded by the piles of its own debris. It offers an easy spectacle of sublime wit with a certain I-can’t-believe-they-let-him-do-that flair for the dramatic—articulating Aitken’s view of the museum itself as just another kind of landscape.

Along with Sonic Pavilion (2009)—an extant work in Brazil in which Aitken drilled down into the earth and set up microphones to live-stream the noise tectonic plates make into a space he made on the surface, Sonic Fountain also directly prefigures Aitken’s concurrent project off Catalina Island. Underwater Pavilions is a sculptural suite moored to the ocean floor. You have to scuba-dive to see it, which is kind of perfect for an artist interested in immersive, experiential works. Three geometrical, open sculptural spaces, parts of which are mirrored, seem to change their shapes with the currents and daylight hours. It’s durational and fractal and the viewer finds their own way in—just the way Aitken likes it. In the end, it is a testament to the effectiveness of the overall show that it created a context where such a crazy idea could make such perfect sense.