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In need of a change, Aitken moved to New York in 1991 but maintained a studio back in L.A. “I didn’t know anyone there, so those first few years in Manhattan were pretty brutal,” he says. Things improved in 1994, when 303 Gallery began representing him; then, in 1998, Aitken gave up his studio, hit the road and lived nomadically for two years. It was during this period that he completed eraser, into the sun, electric earthand hysteria, among other works.
Of electric earth, the work on view at the Whitney, Aitken says, “This piece is about a solitary individual navigating a nocturnal, automated landscape of speed and constant acceleration. At times he struggles with it, other times he’s in harmony with it.” Into the sun, a piece that premiered last year in Germany, is about the film industry in Bombay. “I wanted to make a work that explored every cog and wheel of this incredibly well-oiled illusion factory,” says Aitken, who spent two months on location in Bombay.
Hysteria, made prior to his trip to India, is composed entirely of appropriated footage. “It begins with footage of the Beatles at Royal Albert Hall in 1963, and continues up through the present,” Aitken explains. “Every scene is edge-to-frame audience — it’s a complete landscape of people — and it includes clips from 80 films. What it shows is a gradual transformation of collective behavior that goes from the blind hysteria of being in the same room with a performer, to the stage of becoming a door that simply opens. By the time you reach the end of the film, it’s no longer about the performance an audience is seeing, it’s about the experience they’re having.”
Transformation is also an underlying theme of the book i am a bullet, which, Aitken says, “presents multiple case studies of situations where the acceleration of time causes experience to become more condensed. For instance, one section is devoted to a radically impoverished town in South Dakota called Wanblee. It’s a town on a Native American reservation, it has a population of 600, and the entire town is confined to four square blocks. There’s nothing around it for miles, so it’s like an island, and it remained true to Native American culture until five years ago. At that point, one kid visited his grandparents in Salt Lake City, where he became involved with a gang. When he returned to Wanblee, he attracted recruits. Where one gang exists, multiple gangs appear: Within a period of three months, there was an infusion of seven gangs. Wanblee, is a place where the speed of influence collapsed in on itself at such a rapid rate that it completely transformed the community.”
Asked how he manages to keep discovering stories like this, Aitken replies, “Because like everyone else, I’m just a satellite dish with roots. The amount of information that surrounds us is absolutely staggering — and that’s one of the things my work is about.”
Doug Aitken’s electric earth will be on view at the Whitney Museum in New York March 23 through June 4.