DOUG AITKEN: kaleidoscopic synchronicity

American artist Doug Aitken is known around the world for his multi video installations. His work covers a wide range of artistic mediums, such as video, photography, sculpture, installations and performance. His presence on the stage of the contemporary art world is documented by individual and collective exhibitions in prestigious public and private institutions, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the MoMA and the Centre Georges Pompidou. It was in the late 90s that the artist made a name for himself with the video installations Diamond Sea (1997), exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 1997, and Electric Earth (1999) which won the Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Biennale. Diamond Sea reveals the structural elements of Aitken’s work early in the artist’s career. For this piece, which includes simultaneous video projections, Aitken produced films and images taken in a small area of the Namib Desert that for decades has suffered the exploitation of diamond mines. The desert is transformed into a post-apocalyptic landscape and the filmed sequences are of artistic interest as well as being an historic documentary. They record moments with an autonomous visual rhythm accompanied by sounds which, in addition to highlighting visual correspondences, create an enveloping spatial effect. In this work, the history of the place becomes the starting point of a timeless synthetic experience.

Doug Aitken Underwater Pavilions, 2017, 303 Gallery, Victoria Miro, Regen Projects Video/Film video installation with 3 channels of video, color, sound

He presents his work as if it was an investigation of the many ways to perceive time from the experience. The idea of fragmentation is something that has always attracted him in the sense that, in contemporary culture, there is always a tendency to identify things in a linear way. The artist has always wanted to break with this logical perception, but always remaining in the experiential context. We are immersed in constant change. We are building new tools to mitigate it, but these only intensify the vortex of transformation. Aitken is interested in breaking the usual perception systems of the observer, as well as the traditional idea of contemplation of the artistic work. The spectator must move around and occupy all the spaces of the structure where his work is displayed. Although we are immersed in a world of increasing acceleration, to capture the individual experience is one of the aims of his art. The reproduction of a real situation produces a dissociative effect that refers to the receiver at the moment of perception. This effect offers the artist an infinite number of suggestive and thematic possibilities, free from being committed to any specific reference, as other works confirm. 

Doug Aitken migration (empire), 2008 Courtesy the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Victoria Miro Gallery, London; Regen Projects, LA Film Still © Doug Aitken

Migration (2008), for example, is a paradigmatic work in which a very unusual situation manages to compress its otherness into the parameters of its own normality. For this work, Aitken films wild animals in motel rooms without human presence. With no other obstacle than space itself, animals live in a foreign place, generating a situation that is both paradoxical and coherent. On the other hand, the scenographic component of the installation recalls the same feeling of timelessness which is expressed in the video sequences. Aitken creates an environment composed of three simultaneous video projections, but with minimal synchronous delay, which generates a suggestive visual rhythm with which the receiver interacts in real time.

DOUG AITKEN, installation view, Black Mirror, 2011 © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2015 PH. Norbert Miguletz

DOUG AITKEN, Black Mirror

The Black Mirror video installation (2011) highlights the elements developed in previous works. The actress Chloë Sevigny stages a character without past or intimate connections. Her performance consists of a permanent journey around the world. From country to country, from hotel to hotel, her motto is: “Check in check out/ … Customs security delay / One room single / Check in check out”. The piece presents a series of unconnected scenarios, but related to an unusual situation, triggered by a character whose unique attribute is to be like a “blank canvas”. The ability to condense the aesthetic experience in the present is related not only to the content of visual sequences or to the kaleidoscopic effects that are provoked by the simultaneous repetition of images in the same context, but it is also a property of the sounds that encapsulate the scenery. 

DOUG AITKEN, Black Mirror

DOUG AITKEN, Black Mirror

This aspect is of paramount importance in Aitken’s work, for whom sound is as crucial as the visual and spatial components and becomes an especially important factor in works like the Sonic Fountains (2013/2015),  sound installations where faucets distributed in a grid, drip with a distinctive tone according to a precisely written partition. In the water, microphones record the sound and broadcast it live in space, as if it was a concert. Sonic Fountain is a deliberately abstract work that exposes architecture and reveals rhythm, tempo and language. The search for an absolute present is seen by Doug Aitken as aesthetic parameter. However, we are talking about a multidimensional present that covers not only the expression of an epoch, its mechanisms of production and reception and its Zeitgeist, but also a deep reflection on notions such as space, time, perception and interaction. Without pathos or nostalgia, he thematizes the conditions and contradictions of a contemporary world that modestly reveals its own vulnerability. In the contradiction that arises from the attempt to deprive the present of its own history, the artist claims the autonomy of art and thus contributes to its historical renovation. 

Séverine Grosjean