Doug Aitken


Doug Aitken's films, media installations and photographic works have been widely familiar to the public at the latest since his prize-winning video installation «Electric Earth», which he presented at the 48th Venice Biennial. Doug Aitken (b. 1968, lives in Los Angeles) has made a considerable impact in contemporary art, especially with his video installations, which choreograph image, sound and space equally fascinatingly. The artist is offering a selection of rarely shown early films and installations in the Kunsthalle Zürich, revising and restaging them to a certain extent. They are linked to the most recent photographic and film works, which use an abundance of images to present the construction of our media-driven present as a large-scale kaleidoscope, and then lure us into it.

The power of Aitken's work derives from his specific use of elements drawn from pop culture, from Hollywood and documentary films, and from media art. His works deal with human beings and how their perceptions are changed by media images and the influences of technology-ridden everyday life, with their relationship with nature and civilization and the way they relate to space and time. To this end, he sends his audience on journeys through spookily empty landscapes, urban deserts and floods of media images, moving the individual into the frenzy of electrified acceleration or the emptiness of abstract white noise.
Our experience of Doug Aitken's films and installations is imbued with a sense of movement. This quality applies both to the artist's pictorial worlds and to information and organization relating to our encounter, which the artist initiates through his images and installations. We are entangled in an 'environment' made up of images, sounds and architecture. We are moving in a complex simulated space that transforms the way we perceive familiar images and their meaning. Linear experience of time, space and linear narrative are cancelled - psyches, images, spaces, contents and sound are reorganized in a variety of relations and geometries.
Aitken's projects constantly refer to each other, using a kaleidoscopic logic of repetition and change. In his works, acceleration can increase to the point of spasm and thus of motionlessness, automatisms are liquified, remnants of civilization are neutralized. All these processes are essentially renaturized, and revealed as infinitely beautiful images.

The essential elements are already present in «Inflection», one of Aitken's first films. Here he uses the simplest of resources to combine abstract with familiarly bizarre images, the real with the fictional. The film shows images from a camera he fixed to a rocket. «Inflection» simulates the great enterprise of flying in exactly the same way as our images and ideas of the earth: shaped by space travel, satellite photographs and the media, and the associated shift away from a particular point of view that is measured against human dimensions.

The American Land Artist Robert Smithson remarked that it is not possible to escape from landscape through abstract representation, but that - on the contrary -, abstraction can bring us closer to the physical structures of nature itself. Aitken's 'landscapes' are determined by this relationship between abstract and real images - and even when he films real landscapes or spaces, these become fictions, and thus above all psychological topographies.

In a series of films, Aitken looks for places whose identity has been 'occupied': an area closed off by the army in the Namibian desert («Diamond Sea», 1997); Jonestown in Guayana, where the Reverend Jim Jones's adherents followed their guru to death in mass suicide: this work is called «Monsoon» (1995), and moves through a landscape that that is frozen in ominous stillness. Images of remnants of civilization are juxtaposed with intensely coloured nature shots, and the concrete landscape constantly transforms itself into an abstract view. The film 'waits' for a storm to break out, but the monsoon holds back despite all the signs - the metaphorical act of cleansing does not take place, and precisely for this reason both the landscape and the film are liberated from their symbolic aspects. In «Eraser» (1998) we are wandering through a landscape that has been destroyed by a volcano on the island of Montserrat. The chief features of the journey are ghost towns, desolate landscapes and remnants of civilization. In both these films, Aitken 'erases' nature's symbolic charge by the way he approaches it, but in «These Restless Minds» (1998), he successfully eradicates linguistic meaning through acceleration. We see auctioneers outside telephone boxes, in car-parks, in subways. They are in total command of the speech acceleration particular to their field, their individual 'song'. Figures, words become a meditative, meaningless hammering. The ecstatically endless litanies create the sound of machines that sound inhuman, turning the sought-after individualization into its opposite.

It is almost a commonplace to say that the contemporary subject is made up of multiple images and identities. Nevertheless, Aitken manages to question the way we are steeped in the media today. He goes a step beyond the mere constitution of this fact and initiates multiple perception-modes on the plane of the two-dimensional presence of images and openness to three-dimensional experience. While «I'd die for you» (1993) strings together film material in which John Wayne dies in 14 different ways in the course of his film career, «Me amour» (1998) shows human beings duplicated by the media. In more recent works, the kaleidoscope of our coinings increasingly becomes the composition of the images themselves, which are shaped by a visually fascinating treatment of perspectives, geometries, reflections and kaleidoscopic constructions. «I store images - one after the other» repeats one of his film figures, the world of images has replaced the image of the world. An encounter takes place at the two-dimensional, thin-skinned pictorial surface of the world, which updates itself as a sensual and thus once more multi-dimensional one through the installations.

In «On» (2002) images of everyday scenes repeatedly zoom in to an empty centre. The images of the world assemble around this void, and are then swallowed up in the black-and-white contrasts of two concentric circles. As though you are looking outwards from inside your own pupil, the 'eye' opens and closes in an increasingly accelerated movement.

Supported by Swiss Re
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