'Doug Aitken: Electric Earth' Redefines Art Museum Experience

Doug Aitken: Electric Earth - Black Mirror - H 2016
Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art

The L.A. mixed media artist has his first career survey in his hometown, featuring video installations, water songs and spontaneous appearances by such celeb friends as Chloe Sevigny and Tilda Swinton.

The new survey on mixed-media artist Doug Aitken at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA isn’t just an exhibit of artwork, it is an artwork. Thanks to the aesthetic acuity of museum director and co-curator Philippe Vergne, Doug Aitken: Electric Earth has taken over the downtown L.A. Little Tokyo warehouse through Jan. 15. In an attempt to redefine the museum experience, viewers are immersed in a darkened maze of screens displaying seven of the L.A. artist’s large-scale moving image installations dating back to his early days.

Floating among screens depicting fawns nudging at a hotel mini-bar, deserted parking lots and lonely late-night grocery stores, you’ll see familiar faces – Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Seu Jorge, Cat Power, just a few of Aitken’s many famous collaborators. In the spirit of his epic 2013 happening, Station to Station, a movable art colony on board a train with pop-up concerts by Beck and cactus omelets by Ed Ruscha, the exhibit will serve as a backdrop for performances by actors, dancers and musicians.

“There’s a lot of works in the exhibition that disrupt cinema in different ways,” Aitken tells The Hollywood Reporter, an understatement if ever one existed. Beyond portraying striking and often curious content, his work sets out to redefine the relationship between the screen and the viewer, who instead of remaining seated before a single image moves among many screens of various sizes at various heights. “I think there are works in the exhibit that are very restless, that are looking at opening up the narrative and opening up the concept in ways that are immersive.”

It was essential to Aitken that the survey not be subject to the confines of gallery space. Like his work, which often transcends the walls of the hosting institution, whether it be "Song 1" played in a loop on the outside of Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, or the 200-meter hole he dug in the Brazilian jungle in order to record the sound of tectonic plates, the survey is meant to challenge the traditional museum experience. 

"Underwater Pavilions," three large-scale temporary underwater sculptures to be installed this autumn off the coast of Catalina Island, could be considered taking this notion to the extreme. Their mirrored sides reflect the seascape, creating an otherworldly view for divers and snorkelers that changes with the currents as well as the waxing and waning light.   

As for Aitken’s movies, they sometimes follow a loose narrative, as with 2011's "Black Mirror," in which Sevigny wanders through a barren landscape of desert motels and shooting ranges, searching for an unnamed something. You could label it that catchall phrase, “abstract” filmmaking, though it’s not really. Instead, it’s held together by theme rather than narrative, adhering more to poetic paradigms than plot.

At MOCA, "Song 1" won’t break out of the building the way it did at the Hirshhorn, but it will defy gravity on a cylinder of two-sided screens viewers can walk through and around. In it, Tilda Swinton is one of many performers, including ex-punk rocker, John Doe, lip-synching to “I Only Have Eyes For You,” sung by artists like Bjork and frequent Aitken collaborator Beck.

“You can see it floating as circular sculpture,” says Aitken. “You can stand inside it or sit inside it while it’s wrapping around you. There are many rooms with many projections that all kind of tell one story.”

While video installations make up the bulk of the show, it also includes photographs, collage, architectural plans and drawings as well as sculpture like "Sonic Fountain II," which required a massive hole in the cement floor of the gallery to hold a pool of white water. The water is sucked up into the ceiling and pours back down. As it falls, it is programmed to create a specific musical composition upon landing in the water where microphones record it.

According to Aitken, the imposing structure and the sound it makes break up the tempo of the architectural space. It’s part of a plan to incite viewers from a passive to active state.

“Although it’s full of 40 of 50 different pieces, I think the way it feels, the show itself is an installation,” Aitken says, reflecting on what made him agree to the survey. “It made me become really engaged in it and thinking about how you use architecture in space, and how to experiment with how you see a museum, how to activate a museum.”