It’s not that mixed-media artist Doug Aitken disdains museums, but he often attempts to subvert them by transcending their walls. In 2007 his video Sleepwalkers played in a loop on the facade of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while a later piece, Song 1, was projected on the sides of Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum.
But in his first North American survey, Doug Aitken: Electric Earth, at Moca’s Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles, Song 1 – a loop of various artists singing and lip-synching to I Only Have Eyes for You – is projected on a massive circular screen inside the cavernous confines of the gallery. The 2012 piece, which features Tilda Swinton and ex-punk rocker John Doe, anchors what the 48-year-old Aitken calls a “constellation” of his career so far.
Meanwhile in a room in the north-east corner of the gallery, a warehouse repurposed by Frank Gehry, the artist has dug through the cement floor into the soil beneath the building, the resulting hole surrounded by dirt and concrete and filled with milky water. From above, timed to a rhythm, drops fall, their sound amplified by microphones. It’s a new installation, Sonic Fountain II.
“When you do an exhibition with someone like Doug Aitken and you tell him you cannot do this piece …” Moca director and co-curator Philippe Vergne trails off, shaking his head as he stands by the curb outside.
“It’s nonfigurative, but it’s more of an installation that opens up the architecture and exposes this kind of rhythm and tempo and language,” explains Aitken, adding with a smile: “So, it’s pretty perverse.”
Vergne knew perversity would be instrumental in getting the LA artist to agree to the mid-career survey. With co-curator Anna Katz, the two came up with an immersive approach rather than a chronological layout. Viewers enter a darkened maze of seven of Aitken’s large-scale video installations punctuated by text-driven wall sculpture made of materials such as cracked mirrors or neon.
“I think in working with Philippe we were able to make the exhibition become an artwork,” says Aitken, notably charged up just days before the opening. “It made me become really engaged in thinking about how you see a museum so it’s less passive and more empowering and more mysterious.”
Appropriately, Black Mirror is viewed in a booth surrounded by smoky glass reflections, casting the image in a kaleidoscopic pattern around the viewer. An earlier piece, Electric Earth, plays on various screen sizes laid out in a series of rooms the viewer walks through, emulating the movie’s subject as he strides and shuffles amid deserted nighttime cityscapes.
While images constantly change, new paths propel the viewer forward, suggesting a radical departure from the way most of us have been trained to consume moving images. “I was always fascinated by cinema but was always frustrated by the distance between the viewer and screen, the idea that you go to a movie and sit in a thick chair and watch a single image move in front of you,” says Aitken. His own non-linear brand of moviemaking often relies on poetic voiceover, tends to be evocative rather than expositional and subverts the rules of conventional narrative.
“I think the fundamental of you, the viewer, and what you perceive in that space is very interesting,” he continues. “I’m trying to look at alternatives and other possibilities to bring the viewer into a greater engagement with a concept.”
That said, most audiences, conditioned from a lifetime of viewing film and TV, prefer a linear structure – meaning that the medium stagnates. “For Hollywood, a good film is a good story. That’s not enough,” insists Vergne, who lists Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as a non-linear film that drew the scorn of numerous critics and fared poorly at the box office. “You have [abstraction] in art, you have that in music, but with film we live with this very rigid structure. You want a beginning and you want an end. It’s reassuring.”
In the spirit of Aitken’s Station to Station, his 2013 cross-country train trip with artists of multiple disciplines participating in happenings and pop-up concerts along the way, Moca is lining up lectures, performances and events with the exhibit as a backdrop. Visitors might catch a glimpse of Chloë Sevigny, star of Black Mirror; or Beck might stop in for song, or Iggy Pop, Jorge Seu, Cat Power or some other Aitken collaborator.
Some might turn up for a 24-hour happening on 5 November on nearby Catalina island, in the casino, an art deco landmark overlooking Avalon Harbor. A short distance away, three geometric sculptures will be submerged five, 10 and 50ft below the surface, constituting Aitken’s latest project, the recently announced Underwater Pavilions. Their mirrored surfaces will create a fractured view of the surrounding kelp-rich seabed for divers and snorkelers. Footage collected from cameras inside the sculptures will be edited and included in the Moca exhibit later in the run.
When Sonic Fountain II smashed through the floor of the gallery, Aitken managed to transform but not transcend the Geffen. But with Underwater Pavilions he puts viewers miles away at the bottom of the ocean. “It’s being willing to go beyond structure,” he says. “Whether it’s a self-imposed structure or the structure of an institution, look at things in a way that’s more fluid.”