this week, artist Doug Aitken boarded a plane to Manhattan, where he’ll oversee the assembly of a work called electric earth at the Whitney Museum. An installation composed of multiple-screen film and video projections, the piece has its U.S. premiere at this year’s Whitney Biennial, which opens March 23. It’s already familiar to those on the international art circuit, however, because it won the International Prize at last year’s Venice Biennale. Aitken is also part of “Let’s Entertain,” a show curated by Philippe Vergne on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis through April 30. Exploring the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry, the exhibit includes Aitken’s 1999 work these restless minds, which intercuts shots of desolate American roads, gas stations and parking lots with footage of rural auctioneers.
Also a writer, Aitken is co-author (with Dean Kuipers) of i am a bullet, a study of various manifestations of speed that will be published by Crown in July. He’s prominently featured in the current issue of avant-garde art periodical Parkett, and will be the subject of an artist’s monograph out next year from Phaidon Press. Over the past two years, his work has been seen in England, Japan, Holland, Italy, France, Canada, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Given all this international acclaim, it’s odd that Aitken has never even exhibited in Los Angeles, because he’s lived here most of his life.
L.A. will finally get a glimpse of this unsung local hero’s work in October, with the opening of “Flight Patterns” at the Geffen Contemporary. Curated by Connie Butler, this group show includes works by 20 artists exploring contemporary approaches to landscape in various mediums. Aitken will premiere a new work that’s currently in production, and he’s also developing plans for a Happening, which takes place in August in Japan.
The through line in his far-flung body of work is that it’s all designed to provoke what Aitken describes as “fundamental questions. How do we place ourselves in this world? How do we relate to time? How do we communicate? How do we experience things? These questions are at the heart of all my work.”
Along with Matthew Barney, the Wilson sisters, Douglas Gordon, Steve McQueen, Shirin Neshat and Stan Douglas, Aitken is part of a new generation of artists using moving images as an art-making tool. Talking with the 32-year-old artist at the Venice house he shares with his longtime companion, designer Elizabeth Paige Smith, Aitken says, “My work is primarily about process. But I’m also interested in the entropy of landscapes, and in the way landscape can transform into something else.”
Aitken’s first fully realized landscape-based work, monsoon, was shot on location in 1995 in Jonestown, Guyana, where 900 members of the People’s Temple committed mass suicide in 1978. “With monsoon, it was important that I didn’t know what I was going to find there,” Aitken says. “I read a bit about Jonestown before I went, but I couldn’t find anything that described what the place was like today, so I went planning to film whatever I found in an unbiased way. The resulting work is extremely quiet, and I hope it conveys some sense of the stillness and silence of the place.”
Aitken’s next journey was to a 75,000-square-mile diamond-mining region in Namibia, Africa, that’s been closed off to the outside world since 1908. “I had an idea of what I’d find there, but I also wanted to leave space to let the journey itself open up,” says Aitken, who visited Namibia in 1996 and premiered the resulting work, diamond sea, the following year.
Aitken then headed for Montserrat, the island devastated in 1995 by the eruption of the Soufriere volcano. He describes the work he made there, eraser, as “a piece about reductive transformation. The piece travels a 7-mile course that begins in the north, which is lush jungle. As you go south, you begin to see signs of abandoned civilization, and as you go farther, everything begins to have a silver metallic color. You then reach what was once the modern city of Plymouth, which is now covered in a thick layer of ash, and finally the piece dissolves into the cloud banks that hover around the top of the volcano. It’s as if the landscape has been erased.”
Born in Redondo Beach in 1968, Aitken grew up in Palos Verdes, which he recalls as existing “in the shadow of Hollywood, on the outskirts of this vast machine. I was from Los Angeles, but I had no relationship to filmmaking, and none of my friends did, either, so the movie business existed in our lives as a kind of phantom.”
At 19, Aitken enrolled in the illustration program at Art Center. “I was never interested in developing an aesthetic look or a style, but I was interested in learning the language of mass communication,” says the artist, who taught himself how to use film and video equipment. “The first fully resolved work I made was a piece called inflection — that was also the first piece I did using film. I mounted a surveillance camera inside a high-powered rocket, and launched it above the neighborhood where it was created. The rocket ascended to a fairly high altitude, then the piece faded out just before the rocket returned to Earth.”
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 earth and 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.