Inside the Eye-Popping Labyrinth of ‘Doug Aitken: Electric Earth’

As his mid-career survey opens at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the acclaimed artist speaks with The Creators Project.
September 28, 2016, 5:25pm
Doug Aitken, migration (empire) (still), 2008, video installation with three channels of video (color, sound), three projections, three steel and PVC screen billboard sculptures, 24:28 minutes/loop, installation dimensions variable. 

A sense of place can’t help but spring from the multidisciplinary work of artist Doug Aitken. Via video installations, sculpture, photography, and architectural design, the California native puts surroundings on equal footing with his subjects—if a location doesn’t feature as the subject itself. From manning a cross-country train with unique “happenings” at every stop in Station to Station, to premiering Black Mirror, his cinematic rally against stagnation, on a barge off the Greek coast, Aitken’s grand displays unveil a pointed commentary on how modern society can feel both alien and familiar.


Aitken’s geographically diverse, time-specific approach is partially what makes the latest exhibition at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Doug Aitken: Electric Earth, such a rare occasion. Running through January 15th, 2017, the show gathers the artist’s most high-profile works—many of which haven’t been shown in the U.S.—together in one place; it also doubles as the first large-scale survey of Aitken’s work from the last 20 years.

Black Mirror 4.jpg

Installation view of Doug Aitken, Black Mirror, 2011, at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, July 9–September 27, 2015, photo by Norbert Miguletz

Requiring multiple screens, the video installations physically guide the viewer through their various movements: Aitken’s acclaimed Electric Earth, about a silent, breakdancing protagonist navigating an empty Los Angeles; Migration (empire), a meditation on nature with varieties of wildlife; or Song 1, a 360-degree projection with the song “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos at its center. These join Aitken’s other significant works (Sound Pavilion, 99 Cent Dreams, Twilight) in an immersive experience that practically demands repeat visits.

Aitken is already close to unveiling his next project—a sculpture series of “underwater pavilions” off the coast of Catalina Island—but recently he set aside some time to speak with The Creators Project about the MOCA retrospective alongside his latest undertaking.

Doug Aitken, twilight, 2014, cast resin, acrylic, responsive LEDs, 71 3⁄4 × 54 1⁄4 × 54 1⁄4 in. (182.2 × 137.8 × 137.8 cm), photo by Max Schwartz

The Creators Project: Am I correct in thinking the Electric Earth exhibition has been in the works at MOCA for two years?

Doug Aitken: Yeah, in terms of the starting point we were working on it for two years. During that time we were looking at what worked, and what might be right for the exhibition and the sequencing. And looking at the architecture [of The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA], and re-addressing that space in a different way.


When the idea of a retrospective was presented to you, was there a piece of yours that immediately came to mind to include?

I think for myself it was more coming to terms with how to make a show of many works feel vibrant and alive. I was really against a monographic show, or something that was chronological and rigid in that way. I wanted to do something where the show could basically become one larger work but also keep the very distinct personalities of each work.

Visiting the exhibition, you get the sense of a shared universe between the pieces, most noticeably with the song “I Only Have Eyes For You.” How did that song pass between works, and do you pay attention to that combined world?

I’m grateful that you noticed that. I think it's emblematic of how ideas travel from work to work. When we did Black Mirror there's one very small scene where our Protagonist (played by Chloë Sevigny) is waiting in a hotel room. And the camera pulls out slowly and reveals these two men outside of her cheap hotel room singing this doo-wop song. That piece is very short, like ten seconds, but actually that one scene became the seed for something I did years later, Song 1, where I brought back the same people to become the core of a much larger work, where we recorded 40 or 50 versions of that same song.

I'm interested when an artwork can become a kind of quicksand—you fall into it, and return in a different place. I think concepts can do that. Sometimes concepts can function in a very unconscious way, and other times they're very much on the surface as you’re working with them.


I remember last time we spoke, you were puzzling over exactly how to attach cameras to the underwater pavilions. Did you end up finding a solution?

Yes! I was really into the idea of livestreams coming from the underwater sculptures we are making. I like this contrast where the pieces are witnessed in-person by someone who swims into them under the Pacific Ocean, but at the same time someone in Tokyo or London could access them in real time on their laptops. They become these living films, ecosystems of experience. Yesterday morning I was down at the studio watching these underwater pavilions, and it was so fascinating seeing these these huge mirrored sculptures being built from the ground up. They're 25 feet high or so when you're standing inside each of them, and they create enormous mirrored kaleidoscopic caves. As I stood there I completely lost any sense of time

They almost resemble something from the space program, like lunar landing devices. When we think of space we think of something that's up there, underexplored and quite unknown, but so is the ocean. That sense of perception radically changes when you get under the surface of the sea. You find yourself in a situation that's both liberating and incredibly vulnerable. With the underwater pavilions, I was interested in doing something that disrupts and forces you to undertake a different kind of journey to encounter the artworks.

So you dive to reach the works themselves?

We're placing them at three different depths so that the first two are shallow enough that you can swim or free dive into them. The third one will be close to 60 feet deep, so that one will be darker and only accessible by diving. Each pavilion has different characteristics and qualities.


I’ve often heard you speak of “happenings” as a way to experience your work, and it seems a major concept that’s important to you. Do you remember a happening early on that showed you the possibilities of that format?

It’s funny, what we remember are moments of disruption—those moments that take us out of the ordinary and out of our comfort zone. In culture it's very much like that: I remember seeing Boredoms play in the 90s on top of a skyscraper in Tokyo with wind blowing through the broken windows, and it was such an intense, Blade Runner situation. It was just indelible, and I think there's moments in visual art that are also like that; moments that can be incredibly subtle and delicate but also strong and and disorienting. That's a language, and art is a language.

At the exhibition’s opening, I noticed several of the performers who have appeared in your work walking around. Was it surreal to encounter these key characters from the past all gathered in one place?

That’s the really interesting thing when seeing people who are in the film installations walking through the artworks in person. Maybe in the past we saw this separation between what is created in fiction vs reality, but in a lot of these works I find things get very confused. When you talk about the opening, later that night we had a dinner, and one of the protagonists from Song 1 came out after dinner and performed a totally impromptu a capella doo-wop version of the song. You're watching this guy who was inside the screen suddenly stand up next to you, drift into a song live and then walk out the door.

Doug Aitken, desire (chemical spills), 2009, chromogenic print with MSG (monosodium glutamate), fluoxetine (Prozac), and chlorine bleach mounted on aluminum, 56 3⁄4 x 47 in. (144.1 x 119.4 cm), photo by Stefan Altenburger.

The gallery of photographs that you’ve taken over the years is a standout portion of the show as a contemplative, intimate space. What material found its way into those photographs?

The photographic work 99 Cent Dreams consists of over 200 photographic images. The piece was a work that harvested over time using the photographic image to map this new landscape we’re in. In a lot of ways the entire exhibition has a lot of molecular ideas that create a larger landscape, and you're right about that idea that that piece is much quieter and more contemplative than other installations I’ve made that have a higher velocity.


I've never really seen mediums as precious, I never see that you need to respect a medium. They're just tools for ideas, and you use and push these tools until they short circuit. With 99 Cent Dreams I was using photography in a non-precious way, more like a surveying device.

How did Migration (empire) come about?

We were talking just now about repetition. In Migration every hotel room looks the same, yet is filmed in a different city. It's quite amazing to think in society that we would create a landscape and rooms absolutely without place, with no acknowledgement of where they are. So you end up with this condition where you fall asleep and wake up in Columbus, Ohio or San Francisco, and they’re just completely interchangeable. And I think the natural dichotomy between that and the landscape, the tension there, is interesting.

When you see Migration it's quite deceiving, because it appears as if it were shot in one room over the course of a short amount of time. But really, we shot it over the course of 1,000 miles, using each cheap motel as the stage. In each hotel we release a different animal into the environment and they approach the man made room in a feral way. These wild animals do what they do, whether it's aggressive like a western mountain lion shredding a Motel 6 room apart, or a buffalo trying to push its way through the architecture in a strong, powerful way.

How do you feel now that this exhibition is finally up and running?


When you work on projects like this you’re in it so intensely for so long that I'm just really hungry to see how it works, or if it works, and to see what your perspective is toward it. When art becomes a dialogue it's fascinating, when it becomes a monologue it's just really insular. In a situation like this, to be able to show this constellation of works in a new way, I see the exhibition as some kind of food, and it'll be exciting to see people eat it.

For opening hours and more information on Doug Aitken: Electric Earth, visit the website.


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