Over the last 20 years, Los Angeles–based artist Doug Aitken’s multichannel video installations, sculptures and “happenings” have defied categorization as they charmed audiences and critics worldwide. While his eclectic pieces regularly draw on his California roots, sometimes featuring celebrity actors and often incorporating barren landscape imagery of the great American West, they are, more often than not, exhibited elsewhere.
Often too big, too site-specific or too ephemeral to exist inside traditional museum spaces, Aitken’s art has been displayed on the exterior of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and on a barge off the coast of Greece. One of his more recent works — a sort of large-scale performance/light installation — escaped confinement by museum, city or even state as it raced across the continental United States on the side of a train.
Now, thanks to curator Philippe Vergne and the creative minds at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, a collection of Aitken’s works will be on view inside the cavernous and flexible Geffen Contemporary. The exhibition, “Electric Earth,” is the first midcareer survey in North America of Aitken’s extensive output. It is also the first time many people in Los Angeles will have the opportunity to view a comprehensive collection of the output of one of their city’s most important contemporary artists.
“I’m very grateful,” Aitken says of the opportunity to show his work in the city where so many of his friends and collaborators live. “I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m … just taking [my art] away always.”
For Aitken, whose mantra has always been to focus on forward motion and art that hasn’t been made yet, the opportunity to look back and dwell on previously made works through a traditional, didactic survey doesn’t hold much appeal. Rather than tediously explore old works, he has reframed the exercise.
“For me, this was really a chance to create a new work,” he explains. “What was interesting to me about the project was to visualize the show itself as a work and to really try to present this constellation of pieces as a single mass.”
Aitken had the freedom to turn this survey into a sort of new artwork-of-artworks because Vergne and MOCA collaborated with him extensively on its design. “This survey could be something that is very dry and encyclopedic,” Aitken explains. “I was fortunate in that Vergne really wanted to work with me on it to create something new.”
The exhibit as it has been imagined by Aitken and Vergne will be, like many of Aitken’s individual pieces, an immersive experience. “I wanted a situation where, when the viewer walks through the door, they walk through this threshold and at that point there’s no longer a sense of time and place,” Aitken says. “There’s no formula for how you move through the space. There’s no map or guidebook.” In other words, choose your own adventure.
In advance of the show, the massive Geffen Contemporary has been built out to create a purposefully disorienting labyrinth of rooms and spaces. “Imagine you’re in ancient Rome at night,” Aitken suggests. “You’re moving through some district where the streets become like labyrinths and you lose yourself in the architecture and the motion. I wanted something like that for this exhibition.”
What you’ll see and hear as you move through this timeless, placeless labyrinth will, of course, vary by viewer and experience. On display throughout the space are some of Aitken’s multichannel films. In Black Mirror, actress Chloë Sevigny meanders through a nonlinear script. In migration (empire), a horse’s hoof makes an imprint in the carpeting of a hotel room, a deer sips timidly from a well-lit pool and an owl stares alertly, perched on a bed in the midst of a shower of hotel pillow feathers.
Sound, too, is on display and immersive. In restless minds, one of the earliest of Aitken’s works in the show, rural farm auctioneers babble in rapid-fire exchanges of commerce across several screens. “For myself,” Aitken explains, “there is always music. I was obsessed with it in a way — this idea of music, of sound, of the structure of music. So you have these men and women who are selling heavy machinery and livestock and doing so just to sell it as fast as they can, but kind of inadvertently creating this incredible sonic instrument, like the human voice as accelerated as it could be.”
Juxtapose those sounds with the constant melodic dripping that emanates from Aitken’s sonic fountain. For that piece, a large portion of the Geffen’s floor has been excavated and then filled with a white watery substance. Aitken explains: “The water moves up through the ceiling of the museum and pours back down. We designed the artwork so that the dripping and falling of the water can be very precise and can actually be a kind of musical or sonic composition. There’s a series of underwater microphones that pick up that sound and amplify it through the museum space.”
These two sound pieces are similar but contrasting. One is “minimal, haunting, restless” and the other “accelerating and fast.” Both “look at the extremes of conceptual art and sound and music and where that can go,” Aitken comments.
In addition to his video installations, sculptures and photographs, Aitken’s artwork often involves “happenings,” or performative instances that occur at specific times and sites. Two weeks before the MOCA survey opens, Aitken can’t discuss the happenings that will occur during the run of the exhibit because he’s “still working on that.”
Specifics aside, happenings will be part of the “Electric Earth” experience. “I see the exhibition in a nonprecious way,” he says. “I see it as something where I’m interested in staging live and volatile moments that will kind of happen within the installations or within the show as opposed to keeping everything fixed and frozen for the duration. I really welcome that kind of disruption.”
Thanks to Vergne’s keen eye and interest in the artist’s process, many of Aitken’s rarely exhibited sketches and collages will also be on view. Their inclusion offers the exhibitgoer the chance to peer behind the curtain and into the artist’s studio. Before a multichannel video installation exists, Aitken’s ideas often are processed on paper and through “crude matter.”
“Vergne was very interested in the process of some of the larger works,” Aitken says. “I think he was kind of surprised when he spent more and more time at our studio and saw how many stages concepts take to develop. He became very interested in including that kind of aspect of the work, which is very of the hand.”
Whether or not and in what order a visitor at “Electric Earth” happens upon a soundscape, landscape, sketch or “volatile moment” is unpredictable. Thanks to a curator’s flexibility and an artist’s rethinking of the genre, this survey will be unlike any most museumgoers have experienced. For Angelenos, it is an opportunity to explore and celebrate one of our own, on our expansive and flexible turf, and in “synergetic dialogue” with both art and artist.