In this exhibition, his most ambitious works can only be tried at once. Station to Station (2013), was a 4,000-mile train journey across the United States where a shifting cast of artists, musicians and other artists traveled in 12 carriages that were also creative studios. When the train stopped, a multimedia ‘happening’ would take place at selected stations. At MCA, we are trying out this extraordinary project in the form of a documentary.
There are also movie versions of New Horizon (2019), which contained an illuminated hot air balloon, and Underwater pavilions (2016), geometric metal frame sculptures installed off the coast of Catalina Island, California, available only to divers.
It is the scope and ambition of Aitken’s work that ensures that we only see the documentation rather than the real thing. His Sonic Pavilion (2009) is an elegant, modern building built in a clearing in the Brazilian rainforest. It is an artful home for a tunnel drilled 700 meters into the ground, where a microphone picks up the sound of the earth’s internal movements. (2017) was a house with mirrored walls built in the desert near Palm Springs, but later rebuilt in the snowfields of Gstaad, Switzerland.
Pieces such as diamond sea (1997), set in the Namib Desert, one of the most desolate sites on earth, are free-standing video works with the same atmospheric intentions as the site-specific installations. We are invited to travel in our minds to this remote landscape. Somewhere in the sandy waste, there is a diamond mine that is almost fully automatic, a living testimony to the pervasive, global presence of technology.
The works we can experience first-hand, so to speak, are hardly less abstract and open. Sonic Fountain II (2013/15), which occupies the central part of the display, is a large, dazzling white pool of water, topped up by irregular drops falling from pipes overhead, like a kind of makeshift music. New era (2018) is an installation that combines mirrors and projections that introduce us to Martin Cooper, who made the first cell phone call in 1973. It was one of those historic events that no one seems to know about that revolutionized the way we live on. Cooper has become an old man, but the technology he unleashed is still growing, crossing the planet crosswise with ever-increasing amounts of data, at ever-increasing speeds.
I suppose the work that will appeal most to the viewers is migration (empire) (2008), a three-channel video installation that takes us into a series of cheap, shabby American hotel rooms. Each one is preyed upon by a wild animal – a mountain lion, a buffalo, a horse, a fox, a deer, a peacock, an owl, a group of rabbits … perhaps the most engaging is the beaver climbing around in the bathtub.
The animals behave in different ways, but apart from the passive rabbits, they seem completely confused about the hotel rooms. It’s an absurd scenario that makes us aware of the unnatural nature of these repetitive, formal bedrooms scattered across the landscape everywhere people have settled. When you see the film, you start to identify with the animals and wonder why all do not go crazy in these sad enclosures. Maybe they do. A large percentage of Americans today appear to have discovered insanity as a way of life.
Aitken rises above this epidemic of stupidity. Cool, philosophical, a one-man idea factory, he makes art for those who are willing to let go of the security rails and step into the zone of uncertainty between the real and the virtual. “Every work I do is an experiment,” 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 viewer-as-writer, to make the call.
Doug Aitken: New Era, Museum of Contemporary Art, until February 6, 2022.