Defying definitions of genre to reimagine the nature of what a work of art can be – and of what an art experience can achieve – Doug Aitken leads us into an arena where time, space and memory are bountifully fluid concepts.
His is a unique immersive aesthetic, characterised by a fascination with motion and velocity, that demonstrates the nature and structure of our media-saturated cultural condition. To this end, Aitken edits together frenetic and unique models of contemporary experience to create a new landscape, one in which he hopes we find points of anchor and experience a sense of connection. He employs a number of post studio artistic mediums – photography, sculpture, architecture, sound installation, and multichannel video installation. In each of his artworks, he chooses the medium or combination that amplifies and visually articulates the subject's qualities. The scale of his work can vary from a simple photograph to a complex moving sculpture of infinitely reflective automated mirrors. Quasi-narrative films create intricate mazes of open-ended stories told across reinterpreted physical architecture.
Aitken's Sleepwalkers exhibition at MoMA in 2007 transformed an entire block of Manhattan as he covered the museum's exterior walls with projections. In 2009, his Sonic Pavilion opened to the public in the hills of Brazil at the new cultural foundation INHOTIM. Aitken presented his large-scale film and architecture installation, Frontier, on Rome's Isola Tiberina in 2009 and in Basel in 2010.
Black Mirror - an artwork in multiple forms exploring the story of a nomadic individual, set in a modern wilderness - featured a video installation and a live theatre performance on a uniquely designed barge floating off Athens and Hydra Island, Greece in 2011. Altered Earth, commissioned and produced by the LUMA Foundation in 2012, explored the ever-changing landscape of Arles, France through moving image, sound and architecture. SONG 1 also took place in 2012 and wrapped the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC in 360-degree panoramic video projections, transforming the concrete exterior into an audiovisual spectacle. In 2013, Aitken created MIRROR at the Seattle Art Museum, which utilised hundreds of hours of footage changing in real time in response to the life around it, transforming the museum exterior into a living kaleidoscope.
A connecting thread between outwardly diverse works is a sense of the industrial, urban, and environmental entropy that defines twenty-first-century existence. Adopting the abbreviated language of contemporary communication, Aitken's iconic word pieces such as Free, 2016, or the lightbox work ONE, 2011 (based on an image of the 1964 riots in Harlem, instigated after the shooting of 15 year-old James Powell by a NYPD Lieutenant), possess a toughness akin to the commercial landscape of signage. At the same time, these works move beyond language, breaking down into abstraction. The performative aspect of work that demands an affective response from the spectator is key, as is its ambiguous character: in this instance text as object, object as image.
With a profound knowledge and understanding of the history of twentieth-century avant-gardes, experimental music, and cinema, Aitken's art embraces a collaborative spirit across disciplines. Aitken curated Station to Station, which took place over three weeks in September 2013, drawing together an evolving group of artists, musicians and performers. A train, designed as a moving light sculpture, broadcast content to a global audience as it travelled from New York City to San Francisco making nine stops along the way for a series of happenings. A feature film and a book about the project were released in 2015. In summer 2015, Station to Station took over the Barbican Centre in London to create a month-long happening featuring more than 100 artists, musicians, dancers, designers and other creative figures.
Electric Earth, a major survey of Aitken's work conceptualised as an entropic landscape suspended between city, broadcasting machine and labyrinth, opened at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles in September 2016. The exhibition, which subsequently toured to The Modern, Fort Worth, marked the launch of one of Aitken's most ambitious projects to date, a series of underwater pavilions tethered to the seabed off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California. MIRAGE, an ongoing site-specific installation that reimagines Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired ranch style houses as a harmonisation of mirrored surfaces, opened in 2017 and can currently be seen in Gstaad.
Launched in July 2019, New Horizon, a nomadic art installation accompanied by a series of live events and experiences, took place across the state of Massachusetts (12–28 July 2019), all centred around a mirror-surfaced hot air balloon and gondola that vividly contrasted with the natural settings of New England.
In September 2019 The Donum Estate, California, unveiled Sonic Mountain (Sonoma), a commissioned site-specific artwork by Aitken. Sonic Mountain (Sonoma) is situated within Donum’s lush eucalyptus grove. Mimicking a wind chime, the installation responds to changes in the surrounding environment and creates patterns of sound as wind moves through it. As a living and interactive artwork, Sonic Mountain (Sonoma) explores the fluidity of time by creating a continuously evolving experience that is activated by the surrounding landscape.
About the artist
Born in 1968, Doug Aitken currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Recent major solo exhibitions include Doug Aitken: Flags and Debris at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel (2022), and New Era at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, Australia (2021–2022). Previous major solo presentations of the artist's work have been staged at institutional venues including Faurschou Foundation, Beijing (2019); Copenhagen Contemporary, Denmark (2018); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (2017); The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles (2016); Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (2015); Nam June Paik Art Center, South Korea (2013); Seattle Art Museum (2013); Tate Liverpool (2012); LUMA Foundation, Arles, France (2012); Deste Foundation, Hydra, Greece (2011); Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati (2010); Museo d'Art Contemporanea Roma, Rome (2009); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2007); Aspen Art Museum (2006); Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2005); The Fabric Museum and Workshop, Philadelphia (2002) and Serpentine Gallery, London (2001).
Aitken's work has been displayed at institutions including Garage, Moscow (2019); Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (2019); Langen Foundation, Germany (2018); Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Belgium (2018); ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, Denmark (2017); Somerset House, London (2016); Museum Folkwang, Germany (2016); Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (2015); ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe (2014]; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC (2014); MAK Center for Art & Architecture, Los Angeles (2013); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2013); Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (2011 - 2012); Istanbul Modern, Istanbul (2011); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2011); Moscow Museum of Art and Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow (2011); Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota (2010); Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2010); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2009); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2009); Stedejik Museum, Amsterdam (2007); ICA, Philadelphia (2007); ICA, London (2006); and Hayward Gallery, London (2005).
The artist was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1999; he has been the recipient of the 2012 Nam June Paik Art Center Prize, the 2013 Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Award: Visual Arts, and the 2016 Americans for the Arts National Arts Award: Outstanding Contributions to the Arts. Aitken is the inaugural recipient of the Frontier Art Prize, a new contemporary art award that supports an artist of international stature pursuing bold projects that challenge the boundaries of knowledge and experience to reimagine the future of humanity.