How artist Doug Aitken interprets the pandemic in his new exhibit ‘Flags and Debris’

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Artist Doug Aitken processes the pandemic in his exhibition “Flags & Debris.” Video courtesy of Doug Aitken

KCRW checks in with artist Doug Aiken, who spoke with host Larry Perel near the start of the pandemic a year ago. The focus was making art during a time of uncertainty and reflection. During his three-decade career in the art world, he’s created a house of mirrors in the desert, and a video installation on a huge barge floating in the ocean off the coast of Greece.

Now Aiken shares his new exhibit called “Flags and Debris.” 

KCRW: When we spoke nearly a year ago, you said culture at large could be at a pivotal moment. What did you mean by that?

Doug Aitken: “I think that any moment of major disruption marks [an] opportunity for culture to change, to re-evaluate itself. … One of the things that we've seen in the last 12 months is a major sense of destabilization. But also we've seen new and different voices come out of this.”

What did the pandemic do for you as an artist when it started?

“At the beginning of this, I believe it was around March, there was … a period of complete paranoia for I think many people. You don't know if you can touch the doorknob. And that period was intense, it was mysterious. I think nobody really knew how to navigate it. And I think as far as that period progressed from late winter into spring, I found a lot of people I knew were in a very bad situation, closing their doors, closing their businesses. Everyone was wondering what happens next. 

And I found myself at a crossroads where I make art primarily and in different mediums. And I thought, well, what do you do now? Do you just stop creating?”

Can you describe some of the pieces that are in this new exhibit?

“The body of work really started with these sewn pieces … kind of flags … and banners —  almost blankets.  And I was looking around at the landscape in Los Angeles, and I was noticing things that often go by —  unmarked areas. People who are adrift, parts of the city that was kind of exposing itself in a way that in the normal world where things are moving so fast, you wouldn't really pay attention to. 

I started to … absorb all of these images, all of these kind of moments of contact, and I wanted to address those in a work. 

I started off kind of using language. I would collect words and phrases, ‘resist algorithms’ or ‘reality fracking.’  These kinds of strange words that … illustrate where we're at right now [and] where we're going.

And those words started to become these sculptures —  these fabric works. And then a certain point I realized there should be bodies inhabiting these pieces. What would that be like?” 

How did you express that?

“The idea was to really work with the answers and have them wrapped and covered with these fabric pieces, with these kinds of words or pieces of language. 

And I wanted to take them into the city, into these locations under a freeway overpass, down into the LA River basin. And we would just do these performances. We would just improvise and film and do it again and again. And it was this way of kind of exploring the city …  and using creativity as a form of mapping.”



Larry Perel


Tara Atrian