For more than two decades artist doug aitken has pushed the boundaries of what ART is and what it does. With his first North American survey on the horizon, the artist engages his past as only he can—by redefining it.
It’s the day after the Fourth of July, and artist Doug Aitken is thinking about the electrifying display he witnessed in the sky the night before. Of course, this being Doug Aitken—a man who digs a 656-foot-deep hole in the earth (Sonic Pavilion, 2009) and wraps the Seattle Art Museum in a 12-story-high responsive glass screen (Mirror, 2013) in the name of his art—we’re not talking about pyrotechnics in a charred-hot-dog-scented field.
Aitken spent the evening in the control room of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, watching the Juno spacecraft slip into orbit around Jupiter, a journey five years in the making. “A friend is running the mission,” he explains. “I’m trying to help him with ideas of how the arts can cross over with their programming.”
It’s one of many conversations the prolific 48-year-old is having at the moment, thanks to a long-running occupational habit of following his curiosity—recently he’s been talking to marine biologists and oceanographers, as well as investigating the overlap of experimental film and virtual reality. He is also putting together his first North American survey, “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth,” opening September 10 at L.A.’s The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. “All of these things leak into and inform each other,” he says.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Aitken’s Venice Beach home, a case study in a style he calls Acid Modernism. It’s built on the former site of the century-old ramshackle cottage where he lived for more than a decade. (The artist filmed its systematic, controlled destruction—with his parents seated at a table inside—for the 2010 piece House.)
“Architecture requires so many decisions, and every time there was one I got really interested—I realized we could just turn it into an experiment,” he says.
Catering equally to Dieter Rams and Willy Wonka, Aitken’s house seeds clean-lined functionality with delightful surprises: The sonic dining table is composed of mounted marble tiles with glockenspiel-like qualities. The staircase is edged with mirrors that play off of the skylight to kaleidoscopic effect. The walls of the ground floor are skinned in a silk-screened pattern sourced from photographs of the hedges outside—creating lush camouflage in cahoots with the window views. “By the time the house was finished it was, you know, kind of different,” he says.
He buried geological microphones under the staircase and in the foundation—turn on the speakers and you can listen to the earth shift below. “We think that the one static thing in our lives is what we stand on, but it’s not,” he says. “In making artwork you find that you’re trying to get closer to the language of how you see things; you’re trying to go beyond the surface of what’s around you.”
He has an uncanny knack for capturing the cultural zeitgeist in his work, which spans happenings like 2013’s Station to Station, for which he chartered a nine-car train, enlisted high-profile collaborators like Ed Ruscha and Patti Smith, and mounted a nomadic art show; text sculptures that pit the meaning of words against their visual execution; and multi-channel video installations depicting everything from wild animals wreaking havoc in roadside motel rooms (migration [empire], 2008) to Chloë Sevigny seemingly roaming the globe in an endless travel loop (Black Mirror, 2011). There’s also architecture, photography and publications—each exploring the entropy inherent in modern life in technologically fluent fashion.
So it seems against-type that he’s currently doing a lot of looking back. “For a long time I’ve tried to not do survey shows,” he says. “But [MOCA Director] Philippe Vergne spoke to me in a way where it looked like we really had an opportunity to do something new.”
The friends met in the late ’90s at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where Vergne was senior curator. “I was amazed by the mix that [Aitken] has: being totally down-to-earth and extremely rigorous,” says Vergne. He likens the artist’s relentless work ethic to jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s circular breathing, which allowed him to play and take in air at the same time. “He’s so committed to a set of ideas and this desire to produce and identify new forms…and he’s truly, deeply, interested in what people have to say. That is talent.”
Aitken and Vergne have dreamt up an exhibition that eschews brightly lit white walls and a path designed by curators for a blueprint that, in Aitken’s words, evokes “a living film set.” It’s an environment in which classical musicians may set up unannounced to perform a live rendition of a minimalist score. “You kind of put your foot over the threshold and fall into the space, like a very disturbed Alice in Wonderland,” says Aitken. “What you see might be totally different from what a person who walks in an hour later sees; I became obsessed with that idea—the potential to make this living system.”
Encompassing 67 works, the show includes its titular piece, the multi-screen video installation Electric Earth, a short film following a man on an anxious and hypnotic urban nighttime journey (it won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999), as well as little-seen collage works and some of his earliest experiments, such as the 1992 slow-motion video Inflection, for which he strapped a camera to a small rocket and launched it over San Diego.
“There is a crescendo in the way that he has developed his language,” says Vergne. “It started very early—identifying what was interesting to him; meaning in landscape, storytelling and narrative; what constitutes creativity; and the contemporary condition. His vision was already embedded.”
For Aitken, the excavation process is both foreign and familiar. “I spend most of my time in the present; I don’t think about the past too much,” he says. “I don’t think about my past much at all.”
He doesn’t talk much about it either, but some details have emerged. He grew up in Redondo Beach. He developed a lifelong habit for surfing. He received a scholarship to attend Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, and later moved to New York in the ’90s. His breakthrough came in 1997 with Diamond Sea, a video installation that debuted at the Whitney Biennial and for which Aitken infiltrated an inaccessible region of Namibia to document an alien desert landscape sparsely populated by automated mining machines.
The West Coast eventually pulled him back. He continues to tap into its geographical legacy. “Right now there’s a lot of migration from artists from Europe and New York [to L.A.], but there’s always been an avant-garde as long as there’s been people here,” he says. “Walk outside and you have these pieces of cultural history—[performance artist] Chris Burden nailed himself to a VW Beetle in the ’70s on the corner of my street. When you have dinner and talk to someone about cinema or music or art, you talk in shorthand, and a lot of that was born out of this wasteland that we live in.”
He begins each day with a stroll to the ocean. “It’s like erasing everything for a minute. There’s just something in a quiet way that I really respond to,” he says thoughtfully. “I feel this momentum behind me. And in front of me—I feel very little.”
For someone who can’t help but live his life instinctively anticipating what’s to come, it must be a relief. “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth,” Sept. 10.-Jan. 15, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, L.A.; moca.org.
Photography by SAM FROST.
Written by MELISSA GOLDSTEIN.