Since the 1990s, L.A. artist Doug Aitken has tapped a stream of earthly subjects—volcanic tremors, typhoons and migratory birds—employing ultrasensitive microphones and rocket cameras. A new book, 100 Yrs, puts his broad oeuvre on vivid display.
100 Yrs speaks to more than Doug Aitken’s prolific mind: “It’s about the idea of time, and framing the abode of art within time and everything else in culture that happens around it, as opposed to the art existing only in isolation,” Aitken explains. Among the many works profiled, perhaps migration (empire) (2008) best supports this concept—the video installation of encounters between American wildlife and human civilization will also be on live display next spring as part of SFMOMA’s expansion project. Aitken’s L.A. gallery, Regen Projects, will host new works in September. Here, Francesco Bonami, the famed Italian art curator and writer, shares his thoughts on the multitalented creator.
Sometimes I imagine walking through the streets of the Jewish quarter in Leipzig around the year 1833. I see a young guy playing a horn on the corner and think, “Who the hell does he think he is?” A few years later I find out he is the composer Richard Wagner. Well, when I entered the tiny space of 303 Gallery in New York’s SoHo neighborhood and watched a video some guy had made by attaching a surveillance camera to a small, high-powered rocket and launching it above his Los Angeles neighborhood (inflection, 1992), a similar thought came into my mind: “Who the hell does he think he is? NASA?” A few years later I found out that the guy was Doug Aitken, maybe the closest thing to a contemporary Richard Wagner there is. I think maybe the indomitable Wagner is one of Aitken’s heroes…
Aitken is not a son of the hippie revolution but rather an exotic flower. Because he was born in 1968, the most turbulent year of our contemporary culture, the politics of that tumultuous decade never really affected him. He belongs to the generation that was able to cash in on the freedoms earned by the counterculture. He grew up peacefully, on the Pacific Ocean. Redondo Beach was then a small resort town near Los Angeles with an idyllic climate and a laid-back social mood. In all of his work there is a feeling of existential Nirvana, of time without seasons, exactly as in the beach town where he was raised as an only child. Yet one should not assume that because of this upbringing his work is superficial or shallow. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite. Each work is a tale narrated from the depth of the human soul, trapped by the unavoidable loneliness hidden within each of us…
Redondo Beach is expanding toward Hollywood. Doug Aitken could have drifted toward a disastrous indulgence in technology, but he resists. He is still, after all, the kid born on the Pacific Ocean. His collaboration with musicians such as Terry Riley, Lichens, and No Age, and other like-minded artists continues Aitken’s addiction to breaking rules and boundaries, both visual and verbal, and cements his refusal of any possible linear reading of culture. In his work he continues to decry the destruction of the planet, just as he did in 1998 in eraser, shot on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where nature was again taking over after the eruption of a volcano. More and more we find in his work the idea that Earth is being voluntarily emptied of humans, in some sort of consensual planetary gentrification. We see our planet being transformed; plants and animals act as the saviors for a place that human beings will not be able to inhabit much longer, at least not with the means we have traditionally used to narrate society: music, literature, and images. In Aitken’s work the world is left to sound, feeling, and instinct.
Over the past two decades, ranging from the early videos to his magical capacity for telling modern fables, Doug Aitken has mutated from a Richard Wagner into a contemporary Aesop. Whether in Broken Screen (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2006), in which twenty-six thinkers share their visions with him, or in Sonic Pavilion (2009), a communal space built on the grounds of the Inhotim art center in the Brazilian Amazon, where the sound of the moving interior of the earth can be heard through highly sensitive microphones buried a mile deep into the ground, he always finds another frontier to cross and another to leave behind.
Images and foreword excerpted from Doug Aitken: 100 yrs by Doug Aitken, Bice Curiger, Aaron Betsky, Francesco Bonami, Kerry Brougher and Tim Griffin; published by Rizzoli, New York, April 2014.