Art Swimming the “Electric Earth” with Doug Aitken

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Art Papers, Special Architecture and Design Issue, Spring 2017

The emblematic work of “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth,” the comprehensive survey of the LA native’s films, sculptures, prints, and multimedia productions curated by MOCA director Philippe Vergne, is a pool. Excavated from the concrete and dirt foundation of the rear northeast corner of the Geffen Contemporary’s peripheral ground-floor galleries, Sonic Fountain II is a reservoir of milky white liquid. The glowing circular basin is a repository for the drops and dribbles of an overhead grid of leaking pipes. The amplified sound of the impact of the falling particles hitting the surface of the tinted water fills the room with a rhythmic pulse. Mounds of the demolished museum floor frame the space in a terrain of micro land formations and give off an earthy, haunting smell. This alluring recreation of Aitken’s 2013 installation at 303 Gallery in New York, is an analog of sorts for the enveloping microcosm of which it now is part. It, like its umbrella exhibition, is a cistern that submerges onlookers in sensory stimuli and draws them magnetically to an edge.

Though technically a retrospective, “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth” is significantly more than a simple accretion and viewing of past accomplishments. It is a fearless reprisal and re-presentation of content. Aitken is looking at his history as a totality, a single body, and is seeking, through reflection and conflation, both its reckoning and its future. On the one hand, he explicitly is leveling for review his artistic fascinations in a series of events, “Idea(s) of Language, Time, Architecture, Oceans, and Storytelling,” that both highlight and deconstruct his creative motivations. In these happenings, Aitken is exhibiting, literally putting on display, self- and art criticism. On the other, he is seeing in the individual parts that make up his oeuvre an opening to a heretofore unrealized consummation of experiential art – one that is truly multi-media. The result is a rare attempt at art immersion, an architectural art, that is full palette. Defying chronology in logic and sensibility, the show is organized towards phenomenal unity. Through spatial juxtaposition, the flickering of videos plays off of and decontextualizes “static” artifacts; audio spills encourage slippages between “distinct” compositions. Aitken appears to acknowledge an unresolved tension between the material and immaterial of his work – and a potential for their reconciliation.

An exemplar of Aitken’s introspection, in the happening titled “The Idea of Language,” which took place on September 15th, auctioneer Eli Detweiler returned from his feature role in Aitken’s 1998 three-television video installation, these restless minds, to redeploy his salesmanship in an in-person performance. In the original, running on loop in the Geffen’s central enclosed gallery, the voices of Detweiler and fellow auctioneers echo across desolate, anywhere wastelands, from parking lots to highway underpasses, as an ecstasy of empty bids. In the live update, Detweiler carried this consumerist appreciation out of the art, displaced from societal observation, into the museum, and onto Aitken’s own work. As Detweiler moved from object to gallery around the museum teaching an enchanted audience the fundamentals of the auctioneer drone, he incrementally pulled all components of the exhibition under his evaluating gaze. The rap of Detweiler’s fake sales, timed to the hand-raising pace of playacting museum-goers or to the beat of Sonic Fountain II’s rain, established an overarching tone, part joyful, part diagnostic, for the perception of the overall exhibition: “Hep. Eight. Seventy-five. Nine Hundred. Water. One thousand dollar bid. Hep. Now half. Water. Eleven. Anybody else? Water…” It gave voice to Aitken’s awareness of and interest in provoking the communications and economics of art.

Aitken’s assessments and reconfigurations of his career align with his goals of disruption – not just of his work, but also the role of the museum. Not only is he drilling physical holes into the institution, but he also is challenging its expectations and norms. He is introducing language foreign to the convention of art’s description and promotion. He mixes the commercial and the cultural, thus altering the purportedly sacred nature of art’s engagement with its public. And, by returning to past works, seemingly complete, and enacting “edits in space,” as Aitken labelled them in the exhibition kick-off interview, “Doug Aitken and Philippe Vergne in Conversation,” he is undermining notions of artistic achievement. “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth” discloses Aitken’s embrace of the site of art as a landscape – an ecology of parts, exposed and always transforming.

The exhibition, then, is less conventional survey than a small universe of multi-media constellations. Once inside, time and space, light and form, collapse in dim galleries, a darkness made navigable by a progression of glowing screens and ambient lures. The lyrics of the Flamingos’ 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You” waft from SONG 1, a video that first was projected in 2012 on the round of the Hirshhorn Museum’s exterior in Washington DC, and float throughout the main Geffen warehouse. Here, the urban love story is shown indoors, as inhabitable scrim tube, on which is projected the lip-syncing of celebrity and unknown personalities as they fade in and out of the endless surrounds of crowded freeways, factories, and suburbias. No longer a monumental phenomenon, the piece is the anchor that reverberates into and throughout the neighboring installations. On the upstairs balcony overlook, the Black Mirror pavilion is an infinity funhouse for the moving-image and monologue documentation of Chloë Sevigny’s 2011 travels through the American southwest. Her cycling chorus, as she hops from one roadside pit stop to the next, “never stagnate, never stop,” may as well be Aitken’s mantra.

Within the chain of galleries that bound the museum’s central volume, one mini-world rubs against the next. In the 2008 video migration [empire], projected now in triplicate across full-scale billboards that fill the Geffen’s large southern gallery, a sequence of wild animals, from buffalo, to mountain lion, to owl, is loosed into the rooms of chain hotels, resulting in a range of confrontations with artifice and simulacra of “nature.” A thirsty deer wades into a swimming pool as it drinks from its shallows; a horse watches on wildlife television a herd of its undomesticated brethren running freely across an open plain. electric earth, the prize-winning 1999 Venice Biennale video installation and the retrospective’s namesake, entices visitors to feed off of, become one with, their scenery through the moves of a dancer whose partner is the city. The multi-channel arrangement depicts, across multiple projections and rooms, the sidewalk wanderings of an Angelino youth as he gyrates and scats on tempo with the hustling and bustling around him: “A lot of times I dance so fast that I become what’s around me. It’s like food for me. I, like, absorb that energy. Absorb that information. It’s like I eat it. That’s the only now I get.”

The concepts consistent through Aitken’s works are simple, straightforward observations universal to the thinking experience of contemporaneity. Through an emphasis on repetition, or rather almost repetition, he consistently bolsters, critiques, and spins the mindlessness and monotony of modern existence, while letting in glimmers of beauty and humanity. The structure, for instance, of “electric earth,” as with many of Aitken’s “storylines,” is a loop, but not the loop of first impressions; the video is instead a compilation of similar recordings, each slightly different from the one before, subtle enough to obscure the technique, potent enough to imply evolution. The effect of this elemental and redundant approach is resonance, a deep connection between the message, the medium, and their interpretation – and between the art and its audience.

It is through an extension of this resonance that Aitken is on the verge of something. He is teasing the ever elusive potential of art in and from Los Angeles. With a nudge and a stir of Aitken’s kit of parts, a coming together of the strengths of the film and tech industries, design and manufacturing, culture and pop is almost palpable. The polish with which Aitken’s works is crafted also builds into this mounting potential. Evidenced by the near perfect seaming and gloss of his videos and the advertisement-like distributions of his sculptural signage, the art is slick, corporate even. Still, the machined refinement of his glass, foam, and neon objects, from “MORE,” to “NOW,” “Sunset (black),” and “99¢ dreams,” scattered throughout the show and acting as baffles to the filmic reflections, is profoundly material, committed to the noble pursuit of finish. This attention to detail, within individual mediums, within the composition of mixed media, reads as an obsession with assembling environment that is beginning to transcend the immediacies of scale and the limits of genre. In a quest to achieve dislocation in and between the mesmerizing qualities of objects, spaces, and ephemera, Aitken is invoking next level experiential production as a conversation between the animate and inanimate.

“Doug Aitken: Electric Earth” marks a shift. The exhibition is a suggestion that a synthesis in the arts – of the virtual and the real, the narrative and the formal – is possible. In the promise of the show’s extension into “Doug Aitken: Underwater Pavilions,” November’s unveiling of Aitken’s ocean art on the bottom of the Pacific off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, it extends art’s concern into ever broader underexplored frontiers. In a collaboration with Parley for the Oceans, a collective of deep water advocates and defenders, Aitken is building a small colony of underwater mirror capsules, devices designed to facilitate the appreciation and interpretation of the seabed. Visitors must don snorkels and wetsuits in order to investigate the other-worldly transformation. But, then again, this is a condition only incrementally more extreme than those of any trip through Aitken’s earthbound atmospheres.