“I’m not a very linear person,” says Doug Aitken, the Los Angeles–based video artist and photographer whose work has been celebrated internationally for close to a decade but who is just now receiving his first solo gallery show in L.A. Not very linear? The comment may resemble the sort of easy self-analysis heard over art-school lattes, but in Aitken’s case, it really does inform his life and work.
Aitken, who was born in Redondo Beach in 1968 and attended Art Center College of Design in the late ’80s, began as a still photographer, and, after hitting several dead ends on a project in New York, turned to video installation in the early 1990s. “Installation came about in a very organic and gradual way for me,” he says, adding that his early works were experiments with the tools and with the notion of narrative. The sense of experimentation continues today. “Video installation can be this workshop where ideas can collide and combine and be released again,” he explains. “And I think that’s what I’m always striving to do — to use these opportunities to engage a series of challenges and questions.”
Aitken’s questions center on time and space, the body and being, and he uses video installation as a way to articulate these investigations physically. You could say he spatializes time, and temporalizes space; he returns to the origins of cinema and its frame-by-frame march through both time and space, but he juxtaposes that breakdown with the seamless ebb and flow of video; then he asks us to ponder these two versions of time by meandering around a series of screens in darkened spaces, gleaning fragments of story and character through our own bodily experience. We become the nexus of his intersecting lines, the configurer of his narrative.
Take electric earth, probably Aitken’s best-known installation (it won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999). Exhibited across eight screens, the nine-minute looping video follows a single character (Ali Johnson) who leaves his bedroom to wander through an empty urban landscape at night. He responds to the city’s invisible but humming pulse — the electric earth — through his body, which shakes and undulates. We meanwhile wander through the installation’s numerous screens, glimpsing a detail here, a gesture there, picking up threads of a story — of sorts: Repetition and variation replace the rising action and forward thrust of traditional narrative, and our experience is far more ambient.
Aitken’s Blow Debris(2000) similarly suggests narrative but prefers to offer it in the form of a drifting, almost aimless experience; the piece enacts a passage or journey as we follow a group of nude wanderers in a desert landscape. As with electric earth, what could be postmodern anomie becomes celebratory drifting — Aitken spurns a romantic nostalgia for a pristine past and its untrammeled landscapes in favor of the stories suggested by the discarded remnants and detritus that litter the expanse of the Mojave Desert. He also fetishizes the feelingof the desert. Even in the cool, dark space of the gallery rooms housing the huge projections, you sense the lassitude of the characters and time seems to slow down. And then things explode, time reverses, and you are compelled to walk around some more, from dislocation to relocation and back again.
Aitken’s new project, The Moment, references questions of space and time directly, showcasing a series of vaguely linked moments across 11 screens suspended from the ceiling at eye level and in a gently curving S-pattern. On the back of each screen are mirrors. The video footage shows images of people sleeping and then waking, and these drift into shots of empty parking lots and the arching lines of telephone wires stretched across the sky. There are the anonymous grids of mirrored skyscraper windows and empty bedrooms intercut with close-ups of eyes, skin and torsos. All of it suggests barely perceptible, refracted moments, places hovering between other places, and a shared psychic vulnerability.
As with his best pieces, The Momentembodies its themes in its sculptural arrangement — “a moment” becomes a series of moments spread across space, and standing in the gallery you feel the desire to see all the screens at once, to have all points of view simultaneously. (“I want to be every place,” says a woman in voice-over.) But you can’t be. Instead, you have to move, glimpsing slightly different times in the sequence; turning backward, you see a further explosion of the screens in the mirrored images. The linear nature of the video sequence and the curving line of screens combine to disintegrate and then multiply, creating a deft illustration of new spatiotemporal order via kinesthetic experience.
“I remember so distinctly the first time that I was able to work in a nonlinear way, and I had this incredible feeling of directionlessness along with liberation,” says Aitken. “It’s great that there’s no structure, but if there’s no structure, where do you go?”
With The Moment, Aitken answers his own question.
DOUG AITKEN: The Moment, 2005| REGEN PROJECTS, 633 N. Almont Dr. | Through October 8