Doug Aitken at MOCA

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Doug Aitken, "electric earth" (still), 1999
Video installation with eight channels of video (color, sound), eight projections,
four-room architectural environment, 9:50 minutes/loop
Installation dimensions variable

There are so many ways in which Doug Aitken seems to capture the essence of the present in an art that encompasses video, music, sculpture, performance, internet presence, celebrity, marketing and activism. His is not the jaundiced view, however. This talented magpie grabs whatever he needs to convey a mood that is, often as not, perversely romantic, even poetic. This is the overarching sensibility that I took from his current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary, titled Electric Earth on view through January 15, 2017. That is also the title of his 1999 video installation, owned by MOCA and recreated in a series of open rooms with video screens showing fragmented scenes of a black man wandering, staring, jittering as though in a state of apparent despair, as alone as the last man on earth.

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Installation view of Doug Aitken, "SONG 1," 2012/2015
at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, July 9–September 27, 2015
Photo by Norbert Miguletz

This survey of some 20 years of work doesn't track a linear development from that point to this but Aitken's evolution as an artist is more than evident. Organized by MOCA director Philippe Vergne, Aitken has been deeply involved in the presentation of his work, at times re-tooling the scale of installations to suit the industrial galleries. The piece of greatest impact is "Song 1" (2012-2015), originally designed for the circular exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. At MOCA, it is smaller but still as big as a circus tent so you can stand inside or out and watch assorted characters as they sing the haunting lyrics to the classic "I Only Have Eyes for You."

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Installation view of Doug Aitken, "SONG 1," 2012/2015
Photo by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

Tilda Swinton and Devendra Banhart participate but so do plenty of unidentifiable people, singing or walking or operating in completely random activities, more cypher than character. Periodically, kaleidoscopic bursts of racing lights explode across the screens. The poignant lyrics, "You are here, and so am I, maybe millions of people go by, but they all disappear from view" are sung over scenes of factory interiors or a lonely driver at night. It is a magical installation that induces an almost hypnotic desire to remain in its glowing ambience, a 360-degree filmic experience unlike any you may have had before.

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Doug Aitken, "NOW (Blue Mirror)," 2014
Wood, mirror, glass, 48 1/4 × 108 1/2 × 18 in. (122.6 × 275.6 × 45.7 cm)
Photo by Brian Forrest

Aitken's fundamentally musical sensibility, as informed by the composer Terry Riley as by avant garde film, contributes to the fine pacing of his moving image art. As Vergne points out in the catalogue, for Aitken's generation, video is a given, as is its potential distribution on the internet. His work is informed and respectful of his predecessors — Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Bill Viola — yet desirous of a big presence outside the confines of any gallery of institution, able to live in the overwhelming infinity of the digital sphere. Aitken's work represents the new narrative, a life of simultaneity, an evaporation of boundaries between public and private, truth and fiction.

Despite the seriousness of his endeavor, Aitken is not out to alienate but fascinate. Somehow, he draws hope from the daily breakdown of boundaries. Wall reliefs in the shapes of words, some made from shards of mirror, glitter in the penumbral atmosphere of the museum. We see ourselves, we see others, fractured into splinters in the word "More."

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Doug Aitken, "migration (empire)" (still), 2008
Video installation with three channels of video (color, sound), three projections,
three steel and PVC screen billboard sculptures, 24:28 minutes/loop
Installation dimensions variable

"Migration (empire)" from 2008 is presented here as series of billboard frames showing identical videos of animals inside a motel room. In sequence, we watch a horse watching a galloping on TV, white peacocks stand on the bed, a bison's girth dwarfs the furnishings. They seem perplexed to be confined by what we as another species consider homely comforts and seem to embody a kind of wisdom lost to us.

Though an artist of international stature, I can't help but think that Aitken's work is rooted in his upbringing here in LA. and a familiarity with issues peculiar to its cultural and social history. (When I was writing about LA in the 1960s, he recommended that I read Barney Hoskins' chronicle of the era's rock and roll, Waiting for the Sun. It was invaluable.) Consistently, his art reflects that jagged edge between the transcendental glories of the natural landscape of the West, and the raw, raunchy urban crawl that impinges upon it.

Not every idea of Aitken's is a good one but any survey should give a sense of an artist's thinking even when it seems to lose its way. Aitken is not risk averse, a fact evident in his month-long, 2013 coast-to-coast train ride, performance and media circus Station to Station.

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Doug Aitken, "Underwater Pavilions," 2016
Three underwater, geometric submersible environments
with composite materials, mirror, and live video feed
Courtesy of Doug Aitken Workshop, Parley for the Oceans
and the museum of Contemporary Art
Image by Conner MacPhe

On a similar if possibly more convincing note, Aitken now has created a trio of underwater sculptures to be installed off the coast of Catalina, his response to the land art of Walter De Maria and others in the deserts of the Southwest. You can see one of the geometric forms tethered to the ocean floor by wading or peering beneath the surface of the water while the others require snorkel or scuba gear. The mirrored surfaces of the Underwater Pavilions reflect the surrounding marine life.

Produced by Cyrill Gutsch's Parley for the Oceans with MOCA, the pieces are meant to generate dialogue and wonder. Opening the first weekend of November, they are featured as part of New Ocean Happening at the Catalina Casino on Avalon. Like Station to Station, Aitken's event is certain to grab attention while asking us to think for a moment, or longer, about the fate of the oceans. He may do it in a scintillating and sharply seductive style but the best way to affect contemporary culture is to be immersed within its turbulent center. Aitken thrives there. For more information on the Catalina events and show, go to