Doug Aitken is an artist known for stretching the terms "site-specific" and "land art" to their fullest. He's made his name as one of the US's most prolific artists by submerging sculptures into the Pacific Ocean, sending a train across the country to display original art by several interdisciplinary artists, and drilling a hole 700-feet into the ground in Inhotim, Brazil, to magnify the sound of Earth's core.
Creators travelled to the inaugural Desert X art biennial in Palm Springs, California. The event, co-directed by Ed Ruscha, housed large-scale installations by 16 different artists, including Aitken. His land art contribution, Mirage, is a ranch-style home in the middle of the Coachella Valley, shaped entirely by mirrors.
Aitken's career has been so largely based on the experiential ways he can manipulate nature. Part of Desert X's mission statement includes French playwright Honoré de Balzac's quote, "The desert is god without men." Aitken wants viewers of his most recent work, Mirage, to be reminded of this isolating vastness. The installation forces viewers to see the intense splendor of their surroundings by enclosing them in the landscape, while also trapping them in a caricature of suburbia. Through this duality, Aitken pokes a hole in the overly-romanticized vision of the West, while still allowing the viewer to marvel at California's beauty.
Creators wanted to learn more about Aitken's LA noir, so we caught back up with him, following his artist talk at the Ace Hotel Palm Springs.
Creators: After working with so many different landscapes throughout your career, what inspired you about the desert?
Doug Aitken: I had been working on it for several years, and thinking about how to find a place with the view I needed. I wanted a perspective that sort of looked down into suburbia, and looked down on the sprawl. And then, after the sprawl, it goes into raw desert. The piece really operates as a lens, it's an optical device. You can inhabit it, and see it from the exterior. It's kind of an insular experience. So I was interested in the idea of using suburbia, and using the kind of architecture that you wouldn't notice, because you've seen it so much.
Just from the silhouette it adds an oomph that it's in this ranch style.
Right! It's like, especially on the West Coast, you've just driven by it millions of times. So it kind of erases itself, and it's no longer something you see, so much as it's a part of the landscape and part of the pattern repetition. I wanted to use that. And it's interesting what you see out here in the Palm Springs area, and it's a celebration of modernism and these seminal architects. I wasn't interested in that at all. I wanted to have this banality. I wanted to take an ordinary form and drain the blood out of it, so that it had no story, no texture, no people, no occupants. And suddenly, it's just this form. An empty form. Then, you let the viewer author that experience.
Another aspect of the artwork was to make something that was living, and something that was changing continuously. That was why we used mirrors, they were really there to draw the viewer into becoming a part of it so that it's no longer about you seeing a piece of art and judging it, but instead, you are part of it.
How you describe suburbia here seems kind of bleak. Can you tell me about how this piece fits into our idealized vision of the West?
There's this kind of sense that you move west to create a new future. The sun sets in the west, it seems like a space of infinite possibility. It's manifest destiny. You see this gradual migration that's fueled by a hallucinatory vision of what it should be. In a lot of ways, that's very different from what [the West] is. It is someplace that anyone can author and create their own reality in, that's true. But also, it's interesting for me to think about symbols of the West and to me, being someone who was born here, I think of suburbia, and I think of sprawl. I love the idea that everyone is pushing to the ocean, where you can't push anymore, towards land's end. There's this beautiful brutality to that.
So you recently had your retrospective in LA at MOCA, and that wasn't exactly a site-specific experience. What's the difference between an experience that you seek out, versus one that you stumble upon?
I think we're at a crossroads right now as far as where art can go. There's a lot of branches in the crossroads. There's the part where you wonder what happens inside the gallery, what happens inside the museum. That's one format. But, let's look at breaking that and look at the possibilities outside of that. There's everything from the legacy of land art, to street art, to performances. It's a language that's really growing. The idea that the artist needs to ask permission or needs to be chosen to do something really needs to be seen as obsolete. You can use anything. When you look at the work of Joseph Beuys or Marcel Duchamp, you recognize that everything has unlimited possibilities. I think that the places we experience and encounter should be seen the same.
It must be difficult to use nature as a medium so often in your work. Is that a challenge you desire?
We live in this continuous tension and harmony between the natural systems and the artificial systems we create. That dichotomy is something I think about a lot. It's like, your bedroom has an air conditioner set at 62 degrees. Then it's 75 outside. So when we talk about things like virtual reality, I find that quite boring compared to reality and what we're living with in a tactile, physical world. I think that's incredible. The idea that we can keep creating synthetic realities is taking us away from the one we actually have.
Mirage is on view as part of Desert X until April 30 and will remain open after the exhibition closes until October 31, 2017.