Doug Aitken’s Immersive “Mirage Detroit” Reflects the Places We Live and the Spaces We Leave Behind

Los Angeles native Doug Aitken is something of a legend in the contemporary art world. His acclaimed and immersive art installations seem to laugh in the face of categorization or explanation, swallowing you whole with their ambitious scope and electrifying energy. He has mastered an eclectic variety of media throughout his decades-long career, yet all of his site-specific works function first and foremost as evolving experiences, exploring the encounter between the viewer and the environment they find themselves in, holding a mirror to our society and our collective psyche. His latest installation, “Mirage Detroit,” which was unveiled last week and runs for the next four months, is a literal reflection of the concepts entangled at the core of all Aitken’s work: the dialogue between urbanization and the natural world, between our history and our future, between the spaces we inhabit and the spaces we abandon.

Curated and produced with Detroit-based art gallery Library Street Collective, “Mirage Detroit” consists of a life-size sculpture designed to look and feel like the generic suburban tract homes ubiquitously criss-crossing our country, with one glaring, jarring catch: the entire house is made of mirrors that continually reflect and distort the environment around it, a warped and labyrinthian funhouse that feels simultaneously ordinary and yet utterly surreal, shimmering and shape-shifting in a constant and fluid dance with its surroundings.

The first iteration of “Mirage” was installed deep in the Coachella Valley in 2017, reflecting the visceral isolation of urbanization against the vivid backdrop of the desert’s otherworldly super bloom. This time around, Aitken has steered the project in a different, yet equally evocative, direction: “Mirage Detroit”  takes place inside the State Savings Bank in downtown Detroit, a long abandoned yet elegant reminder of turn of the century architecture, a stunning 70,000-square-foot relic of the past that was forgotten somewhere on the road to the future.

Described by Aitken as “architecture frozen in time,” the bank building, which was built in 1900, stretches the length of an entire city block, looming large and empty and meticulously restored, devoid of natural sunlight in favor of soft lighting that ripples across the vaulted ceilings like water, choreographed by experimental lighting designer Andi Watson, who subtly and masterfully shifts the mood and temperature of the installation. At times the house seems to blur almost completely into its surroundings; other times it glows as golden-hued as a sunset.

A bed of river rocks and earthy terrain surround the mirrored sculpture, which sits illuminated in the center of the once bustling bank’s expansive floor plan, a nod to nature’s quiet resiliency, the way it finds its way back to the spaces society abandons. The house itself is a multi-faceted visual echo chamber merging the organic with the inorganic, brimming with light bouncing off of smooth marble and stone surfaces, breathing life into even the most subtle architectural detail of the cavernous space. It frames and distorts at the same time: amplifying the beauty of the building’s storied history while highlighting a haunting sense of emptiness and dystopian decay.

Aitken has always allowed his work to run rampant outside the restraints of traditional museum venues, and this installation marks the first public access in decades to the historic State Savings Bank, a celebration and preservation of Detroit’s nuanced past as well as a step towards a future in which we view art differently. Literally and figuratively, “Mirage Detroit” reflects an urban American landscape forever in flux, how we become our surroundings and how we shed them, reminding us that sometimes moving forward means returning to the spaces we have left behind.

The exhibit is free and open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 12-8 p.m. and Sundays from 12-5 p.m. at 151 W. Fort St in Detroit. Events and discussions are in the works and will be announced soon.

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