Doug Aitken’s Migration of Light

Zoey Mondt


A horse’s dry, variegated hoof steps warily in place as it shifts next to an anonymous motel room’s floor length drapes, stirring up a dusting of Carpet Fresh powder and leaving horse shoe shaped imprints behind in the pile. A guitar thrums slowly, builds in the Regen Projects exhibit by multimedia artist Doug Aitken. The show of eight pieces by the Redondo Beach-born artist combines text-based light boxes with a large-scale cinematic installation projected onto the Regen Projects courtyard at night and projected inside the gallery on a billboard by day.

“Horse’s eyes are pretty,” a little kid whispers from his dad’s lap on the floor, where they, among other viewers, are watching Doug Aitken’s installation of migration, (2008) a 24-minute single channel video projection on a billboard in the darkened gallery. The kid’s blasé; he’s used to watching animals living comfortably in human digs in movies and on TV. Fringed with light brown eyelashes, the horse’s eyes are lustrous as candied chestnuts and aglow with the reflection of a herd of wild mustangs stampeding across the TV set. A cacophony of chirps and calls make it unclear whether it’s snowy static that overtakes the televised image or a massive, migrating flock of birds. Taking the universal experience of dislocation, a sense of continuous change, as its point of departure, Aitken’s migration is the first installment in a three-part trilogy, “empire,” which debuted at the  2008 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.

In addition to its presentation on the indoor billboard at Regen Projects’ space on North Almont Drive, from sunset to sunrise, migration is exhibited to the general public on Santa Monica Boulevard projected onto the exterior walls of Regen Projects II. Driving past the gallery on the night of the show’s opening, we glimpse through the crowded courtyard a huge projection of a cougar ripping the covers off a bed. Continuing an ongoing investigation of architecture and the installation of his work in public spaces, including his 2007 piece, Sleepwalkers, which was projected on the exterior walls of the Museum of Modern Art, Aitken lights up the outside of the Regen Projects II building like a sign, like the LCD billboards illuminating Sunset Boulevard at night.  Draping a building in light and image, Aitken appropriates the architecture, transforms it into art, his art, and demands greater responsibility and participation from the viewer who in turn navigates their own perspective and experience.

Later, viewing migration inside, I think again of the destructive cougar when a bison steps into its own motel room. Uh oh. The words “bull in a china shop” spring to mind.  Surprisingly resigned, the bison walks over to the window, nudges the curtain aside with its horn and gazes outside. In nondescript motels apparently devoid of human presence, a series of wildlife appear each in its own room, indistinguishable from the last. There is a familiarity to these bland spaces with their two double beds, instant coffeemaker, TV and mini-fridge. The detachment of the figure in the room to its surroundings is emphasized by the banality of this ritualized space: the raccoon seems to make some coffee while the beaver has a bath and the fox springs on a puzzle on the bed. Presented non-linearly, the viewer works to make sense of the limbo inherent in these transitory spaces rife with continual cause and effect in which the subjects are separate from their surroundings on many levels, calling into question relationships between nature and man, the urban and the indigenous. The viewer becomes the narrator, if not the protagonist, via the anthropomorphism of its subjects, each interpretation dependent on each viewer, in what Aitken terms “the broken screen.”

In his Broken Screen project for Artforum, Aitken questions what observations can be made about contemporary modes of attention and communication. In an interview with Frieze publisher Amanda Sharp, Aitken states, “In this era of changing perceptions we’re responsible for creating new options with which to communicate. Structurally. I’m searching for alternatives. Each work I make is an experiment.”

Coincidentally, a friend of a friend did the motel room sets for migration. Of course logistically the rooms had to be sets with all those animal…actors?

After attending Art Center, Aitken was a successful music video director.  His music video for LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” in which a melancholy girl-shaped black silhouette figure moves through the world as a lonely void links to Heatwave (2009), one of the seven light box pieces on view at Regen Projects II. Consisting of three LED-lit light boxes shaped like human figures, each with a cave’s opening at the center of his chest yawning light, “Heatwave” is an illustrated metaphor. Through a series of forced comparisons one sees person as geography. Formally, the figure is the mountain; also, the person is inside the cave. Graffiti artist The Street Phantom’s spray painted silhouette made famous on Rage Against The Machine’s The Battle of Los Angeles comes to mind, along with Aitken’s 2001 diptych new shelter. A Digital C-print mounted to Plexiglass in a floating frame, the left side of the diptych is an image of the mouth of the cave from inside looking out toward the light. On the right side, a figure stands in stark silhouette in the center of the opening.

“There’s a huge difference perceptually between backlit and front-lit images, between the way film and video projects light and television monitors and stained glass, which emit light. There seems to be something more aggressive about the backlit image, whether it’s commercial LED signage or a backlit photograph––I feel it’s reaching out to attract or attack or seduce me. A light source directed at the viewer announces its presence and challenges you not to look away,” Aitken said in an interview with choreographer William Forsythe. “new horizon” (2009) is a star-shaped, LED-lit light box depicting the glowing Los Angeles skyline, dotted with tiny lights.  This, along with all of the light box pieces, comes in an edition of four.

The recipient of the international prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999, Aitken creates work that explores themes of space and temporality, memory, mobility, and landscape. His light boxes deconstruct and reinvent the connection between idea and iconography.  Presented in the darkened gallery, the words FREE and NOW play off one another, panoramic landscapes viewed through the text. A collage of Dash Snow style photos covers the LED lit light box in the shape of the word Now (2009). A demolished casino, solitary on a barren landscape, glows on Free (2009). Aitken’s work explores the placement of the individual in the world while acknowledging the solitary experience of individual perception even as we reach out toward others.  In a 21st century increasingly in flux and at the same time more interconnected, Doug Aitken has come up with new levels of perception available to see and grasp the world.

Image first page: Doug Aitken, migration. Installation view: Regen Projects II, Los Angeles. September 12 – October 17, 2009. Photography by Brian Forrest

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