In this exhibition, his most ambitious works can only be tasted in one place. Station to Station (2013), was a 4,000 mile train journey across the United States, during which a changing cast of artists, musicians, and other performers traveled in 12 cars that were also creative studios. When the train stopped, a multimedia “event” would have taken place at selected stations. At the MCA, we taste this extraordinary project in the form of a documentary.
There are also film versions of New horizon (2019), which featured an illuminated hot air balloon, and Underwater pavilions (2016), geometric metal-framed sculptures installed off Catalina Island, California, accessible only to divers.
It is the sheer scale and ambition of Aitken’s work that ensures that we only see the documentation rather than the reality. His Sonic Pavilion (2009) is an elegant and modern building built in a clearing of the Brazilian rainforest. It is an elaborate house for a tunnel dug 700 meters into the earth, in which a microphone picks up the sounds of the internal movements of the earth. (2017) was a house with mirrored walls erected in the desert near Palm Springs, but since taken over in the snowfields of Gstaad, Switzerland.
Parts such as diamond sea (1997), set in the Namib Desert, one of the most desolate places on the planet, are stand-alone video works with the same atmospheric intentions as the site-specific installations. We are invited to travel through our minds in this distant landscape. Somewhere in the sandy waste is a diamond mine that is almost fully automated, a living testament to the ubiquitous global presence of technology.
The works that we can experience, so to speak, firsthand, are hardly less abstract and open. Sonic Fountain II (2013/15), which occupies the central part of the exhibition, is a vast basin of dazzlingly white water, complemented by irregular droplets falling from the pipes above, like a sort of makeshift music. New era (2018) is an installation mixing mirrors and projections, which introduces us to Martin Cooper, who made the first phone call in 1973. It was one of those historical events that no one seems to know about that revolutionized the way we live. Cooper has grown into an old man, but the technology he unleashed continues to grow, crisscrossing the planet with ever-increasing volumes of data, at ever-increasing speeds.
I suspect that the work that will attract viewers the most is migration (empire) (2008), a three-channel video installation that takes us inside a succession of cheap and shabby American hotel rooms. Each is occupied by a wild animal – a puma, a buffalo, a horse, a fox, a deer, a peacock, an owl, a group of rabbits … perhaps the most endearing is the beaver climbing into the tub. .
Animals act in different ways, but other than passive rabbits, they seem completely disoriented by hotel rooms. It’s an absurd scenario that makes us realize the unnatural character of these repetitive bedroom formulas scattered across the landscape in every place humans have settled. Watching the film, we start to identify with the animals, to wonder why everyone don’t go crazy in these dreary enclosures. Maybe they do. A huge percentage of Americans today seem to have discovered insanity as a way of life.
Aitken rises above this epidemic of stupidity. Cool, philosophical, a one-man ideas factory, he makes art for those who are ready to let go of the safety rails and enter this zone of uncertainty between the real and the virtual. “Every work I do is an experience,” he once said, but art galleries are not laboratories. With Aitken’s work, there is no objective measure of success or failure. It’s up to you, the spectator-author, to make the call.
Doug Aitken: New Era, Contemporary Art Museum, until February 6, 2022.