(Oops, I admit that I failed to take adequate photographs at the exhibit and so in some instances I’ve used photos I found online of the same projects but shot at a different venue.)
On my recent trip to Los Angeles I visited the Geffen Contemporary where I saw an exhibition “Electric Earth” by the artist Doug Aitken. Approaching the museum I found all the windows and doors blacked out and I struggled for a moment trying to find the entrance. I emerged into a vast darkened space. In the distance I glimpsed bright moving images, but at the desk where I bought my ticket there was barely enough light to find my wallet
As I left the desk I saw a brightly lit room on my left. Guided by the light, this is where I started. Aitken created a freestanding plywood room within the larger framework of the warehouse-like museum. Titled “99¢ dreams” the installation consisted of colored photographic prints mounted on aluminum and hung floor to ceiling on all four walls. Moving clockwise through the space I noticed that the photos were subtly arranged along a chromatic progression, dark moody photographs progressing toward light and color. I read the photographs as frames from a film, each distinct and yet together telling a fractured story of dislocation in space and time.
Leaving the plywood room, it was up a ramp where I found myself on a mezzanine with a view through girders down to a vast open area below. Suspended above this open area was a large circular scrim with video projections that moved around the circular shape of the screen.
From my elevated location I could see the image on the screen before me and a second moving image on the far inner section of the suspended screen. I have to admit that the piece took my breath away. I had a primal response to the formal sculptural aspects of the piece – a bright colored torus-like shape interacting with the large void of the dark gallery. Aitken fully exploited the shape of this screen, which references early photographic devices such as the zoetrope.
Click on the image above to view the video.
The projected video in this installation, “Song I,” employed many of the elements and principles of design (see our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook) but I was particularly struck by Aitken’s use of the principles of pattern and rhythm. There was a motif created by the movement of the images in a circular direction around the screen and another by the periodic vertical frames between images. Another rhythm was syncopated in nature, as scenes changed at different tempos. This was all reinforced through his use of sound (a big component of all of his work). There was a masterful orchestration that combined physical forms, cinematic storytelling, sound, and a profound visual beauty.
A note about this piece, from the main floor of the gallery the viewer could enter the suspended scrim through a gap in the fabric. Personally, I found the installation more effective from the vantage point of the mezzanine where the positive/negative space relationships of the sculptural form were stronger.
On this same mezzanine level Aiken built a self-contained room of mirrors and projections. This installation piece, “Black Mirror,” centers on ideas of travel and disconnectedness. The interaction between the narrative and the scattered physical structure of the mirrored projections put the viewer on edge. It moved the story in unpredictable ways and strangely, the viewer became an actor/director, selecting where to focus and which aspect of the narrative to follow. The actor in the filmed sequence is Chloë Sevigny. Two of the people in our group found this distracting but for me using a well-known movie personality contributed to Aitken’s commentary on the role of media in our world view. Interestingly, both Aitken and Sevigny travel extensively and find themselves wandering in strange cities, living in motel rooms, and waiting in airports, all places that reoccur throughout the film projections.
From the mezzanine it was down to the main floor of the gallery, and on to a half-dozen more rooms of both video installations and film screenings. The exhibit is huge. Each time I’d think there couldn’t be more I’d turn a corner and find another overwhelming piece.This is an exhibition that requires multiple visits to fully appreciate – in fact forget appreciate, it takes multiple visits just to see everything that is included. One of the galleries contained a reproduction of a standard movie theater where the viewer could sit in a cushioned theater seat and watch Aitken’s films. We spent several hours at the museum but unfortunately we had a reservation at the Broad Museum and couldn’t spend more time. I’m hoping to get down to L.A. again before the exhibition closes. If so, expect further information about what I saw.
Let me end with a few images of Aitken’s work and this quote from Philippe Vergne, the Director of MOCA:
“The exhibition creates its own space and time through the fragmentation of images and sounds and becomes a work in itself. It is a total environment that acts as a broadcasting tower for the issues of our time—the ethical and aesthetic questions that frame this moment, those of human, environmental, and social entropy—and does so in a way that is immersive, making the viewer a fully participatory protagonist of the work.”