For more than 20 years, Los Angeles native Doug Aitken has been creating immersive, ambitious art through vastly varied media: video installations, collages, photography, performances, sculptures, and architectural projects. His work, though wide in scope, vibrates with a common electricity, a vulnerable energy, all hinging on a doctrine of deeply-rooted central themes. This includes, most significantly, the decay of dreams and lost love, the social isolation and dissolution caused by our increasingly digital lifestyle, the simultaneous standardization of urban environments and destruction of natural landscapes, and the ultimate exhaustion of linear time. That’s quite a mouthful, and it goes without saying that there’s a lot bubbling below the surface of Aitken’s work, and most of it defies typical artistic categorization.
In the past, his monumental, experimental “happenings” have even defied the constraints of modern museums, with Aitken displaying his eclectic installations on the exterior of MOMA in New York, on a barge off the coast of Greece, and, in the case of his most recent “living project” “Station to Station,” in a moving train crossing North America. Aitken was born and raised in Southern California and currently resides in Los Angeles, and much of his work feels directly pulled from those roots: he often features the kind of barren, turmeric-tinged landscape you would expect to see driving down the 5, and many of his videos are peppered with celebrities (Tilda Swinton, Beck, Chloe Sevigny) and haunted by the looming, ever-connected isolation that feels unique to Los Angeles.
Despite his connection to California, Aitken’s work has mostly been shown elsewhere, which makes “Electric Earth,” Aitken’s first large mid-career survey, up until January at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo, all the more meaningful. Under the watchful eye of MOCA director Philippe Vergne, the most extensive collection of Aitken’s work to date has come alive, transforming the flexibly cavernous Geffen into a “living, breathing space,” an immersive landscape “infused with surprises.”
“Electric Earth” is focused on seven large-scale installation pieces, as well as collections of Aitken’s photography, electric sculpture, single screen films, and collage work. Stepping inside the exhibition feels like stepping into another world, dark and womb-like even at 11am on a perfect September morning in LA, and it is overwhelming to your senses at first, lights blinking and muffled sounds drifting in the room and no guided path for you to follow, but that is the point. Aitken wants you to feel vulnerable, to feel disrupted, to create your own narrative. He wants to jar viewers awake as they move from room to room, immersing themselves in their own experience as much as in his installations. Aitken is aiming to reframe his individual works as a constellation of motion, light, and sound, each piece fitting together organically, giving a dynamic, energized shape to the exhibition.
Aitken’s installation work depicts the ways in which our society is unraveling as we graduate from analog to digital, mapping the isolation and destruction that ensues from our technology dependency and restless mobility. His pieces are typically abstract and fragmented, with nonlinear narratives featuring repeated imagery that appear to make time stretch, expand, fold back on itself, representing Aitken’s desire to explore beyond our standard perception of time.
Appearing to float in the middle of the exhibition is the massive and hypnotic “Song I,” projected on a circular screen that viewers can wander in and out of. It features a variety of people (presumably Angelenos) going about their daily lives, each individually singing along to that old Flamingos’ song, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” The video scans from a young woman walking to her car in the parking lot to a factory worker under florescent lights, to a man speeding down the neon throat of the highway at night, to Tilda Swinton looking iridescent against a black backdrop, to a Doo Wop duo bringing the song to its frenzied conclusion. The result is a staggering, tender montage of isolation and longing that quite literally surrounds you, each individual voice building and giving way to a larger communal feeling.
In “House,” a small video installation tucked alongside Aitken’s collage work, an elderly couple, who happen to be Aitkens’ parents, sit across from each other at a dining room table, staring lovingly at each other, remaining still and silent as the house dramatically falls apart around them – drywall crumbles, windows are blown out, glass shatters. The quiet moment they share, the calm, steady gaze fixed on the one they love amidst collapse and chaos is beyond powerful, and so palpably intimate that I had to look away.
Another standout among Aitken’s work is “migration (empire),” a multi-channel video installation that is displayed on multiple screens that look like billboards. The installation juxtaposes urban standardization with our destruction of nature by releasing feral animals into motel rooms. Each motel room used in the film is in a different city over the span of 10,000 miles, yet each looks the same and feels numbingly familiar. When the animals are released – a beaver reaching for the bathtub faucet, a deer pawing at the mini bar, a cougar wrestling the duvet cover, an eagle perched perfectly still on the bedspread, eyes darting around the room – we see these spaces through the heightened perception of the animals, and suddenly it becomes difficult to ignore the glaring unnaturalness, the complete lack of individuality. It is both horrifying and strangely humorous to see these animals attempt to navigate the motel rooms, and is a sharp reminder as to how far we have distanced ourselves from our own wildness.
There is also the magnificent “Sonic Fountain II,” a 22 ft. wide crater, surrounded by dirt and rubble, carved into the floor and filled with glowing milky-white water. Above the pool is a nine-faucet fountain, whose melodic, timed drippings are recorded by underground microphones, which echo across the dimly-lit, cavernous space.The entire experience is hauntingly surreal, rough and raw yet lovely in its minimalism. It seems to say something about our tendency towards industrialization, how we, as humans, remove the natural cadence from the environments that we inhabit, and what we lose by continuously smoothing over the roughness. I stayed in that room for a long time, watching drops of water hit the milky surface and ripple outwards, and it was a quiet and beautiful feeling, holding myself still in this place between soothing and unsettling.
Throughout “Electric Earth,” Aitken blends his commercial background with his passion for the unorthodox and experimental, and the resulting exhibition is highly stylized and spectacularly larger than life. It is overwhelming, exhausting, vaguely prophetic, at times hard to watch. His work is constantly exploring, unraveling, trying to break down the fourth wall, delving deep into the social isolation and natural degradation that our technological and industrial advances have led to, exploring how that has changed how we perceive things such as time and art. Aitken’s work is not hanging in a museum. It is alive, moving and evolving, crackling with electricity, holding up a cracked and crooked mirror to our society, our psyche, and what he allows us to see is electrifying.
“Doug Aitken: Electric Earth” runs until January 15, 2017 at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. Don’t miss it!