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There’s a dreamy international drift to Doug Aitken’s retrospective at MOCA, Electric Earth. In a scene from Black Mirror (2011), Chloe Sevigny, in an ambiguously international hotel room, reads off a list of disparate cities over the telephone—we’re left wondering who is on the other end. The film projects within the interior of a mirrored architectural structure; Sevigny and vague scenes of industry and landscape multiply and, ostensibly, animate the installation’s architectural pretensions. Yet, the end result is something monolithic, even turgid: the polished, reflective surface, the beautifully-rendered ennui, the unspoken and unremarked upon underpinnings of class, access and privilege. In Black Mirror, far-flung locale are material, and then immaterial; nature is affect.
Aitken’s work is sumptuous: beautiful, if cerebral, and comfortable to become lost within. Its comforting qualities are also the rub: appealing dreamscapes that teeter along the twin precipice of esotericism and meaninglessness. Landscape, as a fluid material in the hands of Aitken’s films, is stripped of geographic identity; electricity is harnessed, materials are mined, surfaces polished, ad nauseum. Beauty becomes comfort becomes tedium in this arena of aestheticized privilege.
MOCA’s staging invites an easy meander on the part of the viewer, and usefully contrasts Aitken’s sculptural and two-dimensional works against his many films. Perhaps fittingly then, Aitken’s filmic space is not the space of action, but, instead, of perpetual transience, trafficking in a time-based monotony reminiscent of a strain of ’60s and ’70s European cinema practiced by Antonioni or Ackerman.
In many cases, the entrance of a sole human subject into the frame saps the power of Aitken’s picturesque. The centerpiece and exhibition namesake, electric earth (1999), with its crackling movement and intonation of urban tunnels and neon light, is an exception, in that the lone protagonist has both agency and anonymity (celebrities, like Sevigny, fill many of the acting roles elsewhere). Though electric earth’s central metaphor—dance as transformation—feels strained and overstated at points, it is here that Aitken synthesizes an animistic vision of nature and culture collided, and grown into one another.
Contrast this with Song 1 (2012), in which a slow parade of recognizable figures languidly mouth the words to “I Only Have Eyes for You” along a mammoth cylindrical screen (the piece originally screened on the exterior of the Hirshhorn Museum). The specter of celebrity here comes off as distracting at best, grossly ostentatious at worst, and unrevealing all around. To frame those in power with beauty and composition (and flattery) is to underscore one’s own proximity to this power, and the access—to air travel, high-end hotels, modernist domestic architecture— that comes in tandem with it. Though the experience is far from unenjoyable, it is disquietingly commercial in a museum setting.
The flow of raw materials as a substratum of the flow of material goods is— despite its deeply troubling relation to capitalism—an awe-inspiring thing, and has captivated Western culture since the advent of trade and shipping routes. Michel Serres, in his book Statues, makes poignant material out of the flow of the earth into the structures that surround us every- day. (1) Aitken’s slow-pans across the Namib Desert in diamond sea (1997) revel in picturesque locations showing only the signs of a human touch either long-gone (ruins) or opportunistic (industry). What one is to make of the landscape itself is entirely speculative, both in the open-ended, and oily real-estate senses.
Aitken is, thankfully, no stranger to humor, nor is he un-adept at wringing awe and curiosity out of a kind of skewed every-day—the low-frequency, high-volume roar of late-’70s concert goers in Hysteria (1998-2000) in that regard occupies a zone of equivalency with the hum of industrial machinery (diamond sea) or the din of tectonic plates shifting far below the earth (Sonic Pavilion, 2009). So it seems the wall text accompanying Sunset (black) (2012) (“this sun never sets or fades”) would ring false, or least ironic, to Aitken himself. Electricity, or access to it, is not, after all, a perpetual state, but one dependent on the cooperative structures of society. Aitken spends quite a bit of time in this exhibition reminding us of the quickened geologic pace of the post-industrial era, in which various geologic eras are regularly intermixed—permanence routinely mined, then undermined. Aitken amply gives the lie to an anachronistic Newtonian notion of stability that occupies our culture like a ghost—or, in other words, Aitken’s work will last as long as the lights are turned on, and as long as there are lights to turn on.
(1) “Flow does the Garonne, flow do the sands with the water and the gravel through buckets, hoppers, cement mixers…finally hardening around metal frameworks in the respective forms of pillars, walls or ceilings, deep piles or vertiginous towers. The water of the river freezes into sand; the mortar sets in order to build the house.” Michel Serres, Statues. Trans: Randolph Burks. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Originally published in Carla issue 6