Visual Art

In New Era, Doug Aitken’s politically charged art insists on a dialogue with its viewers.

By Miriam Cosic.

Doug Aitken: New Era

An installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of a detail of END/RUN (timeline) 2014.
Credit: Daniel Boud

Doug Aitken’s artworks are more exciting in the moment than they are in memory. Whether they can leave an enduring influence on the viewer may be a question for psychologists rather than art critics, but a related question is more germane: how important are artists’ verbal explanations to an appreciation of their work?

Doug Aitken: New Era at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney is Aitken’s first solo show in Australia and the first major exhibition at the gallery since Sydney’s awakening from lockdown. A survey of his work since 1997, it covers all his media: large-scale installations; multiscreen, wall-sized videos; and photographs and sculpture. One of his aims is to transcend the “white walls” of museums: there is also documentation here of projects that have taken place underwater or as a caravanserai travelling across America. “Immersive” is a word he often uses and writers often take it up to describe his work.

In Sydney, several works stand out. “Art can be something you discover,” declares an Aitken quote on a wall text in the show. “It could be something you don’t even recognise at first.” It sounds innovative until you remember Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain made in 1917: a porcelain urinal Duchamp bought that controversially became an artwork when he signed it by the imaginary artist R. Mutt.

One of the Aitken standouts, appropriately enough, is Sonic Fountain II (2013-15). Made of large piles of earth and broken concrete that look like the remains of construction around a pool of white water, it is a meditative sound experiment influenced by the music of John Cage. The water is recirculated through a shower-like device at ceiling height. Its operation fluctuates, alternating the sounds of a waterfall with rhythmically drumming drips. It is mesmerising, both for its size and for its calls on multiple senses: sight and sound and the instinctive – though doubtless forbidden – desire to touch.

Diamond Sea (1997) is easier to understand because it uses the medium of the moment. Aitken spent years trying to gain entry to a 75,000-square-kilometre area in Namibia known as Zone 1 and Zone 2. Designated Sperrgebiet (Tsau IIKhaeb) National Park since 2008, it has been sealed off to the public since 1908, when it was a German colony. Within those restricted-access zones is the world’s largest diamond mine, which is totally computer-controlled today. Originally owned by the De Beers company, it has been 50 per cent owned by the Namibian government since the 1990s.

In the three-channel installation, intriguing depictions of patrolling helicopters, abandoned housing, electronic security and areas of devastated land are offset by magnificent video of billowing sand dunes with not a living thing in sight. The dunes are beautiful. Once the wall texts inform you of the context, however, the other images become worryingly meaningful.

Other video installations reverse the order of encounter and meaning. Take New Era (2018), a meditation on the effect mobile phones have had on communication and connectivity in 21st-century human society. Inspired by the development of the now-ubiquitous communication device and the work of its pioneer, the American engineer Martin Cooper, the work alternates three walls of small-patterned moving graphics that illustrate the binary dynamic of computer technology with three walls of mirrors. The videos and their mirroring begin to merge as visitors move around the enclosed space. The mirrors also suggest the refusal of real life as people peer at their phones in social situations or wander the streets hunched over them instead of looking at the cityscape or acknowledging passers-by.

The day I visited interest in the electronic imagery seemed to peak quickly and visitors began instead to study themselves, their own looks and movements. It was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism brought vividly to life 40 years later.

Migration (empire), a 24-minute video work made during a trip across America in 2008, is another work that expands as the pictures are explained. Aitken says he was enraged by the signage he encountered on the road trip. “I became obsessed with the aggression of signage and billboards, the violence of words and phrases reaching out for your attention, advertising desperation, bankruptcy, a real estate deal to the left of you, a restaurant to the right of you.”

Aitken’s locations are peopled only by wild animals that are released into motel rooms across the country. Their behaviour is interesting. The video shows a mountain lion prowling around the room, leaping on and off the bed. Other vignettes include a bison, a deer, a fox, some rabbits, a horse and a peacock. In one, an owl has ripped apart the bedding and feathers float around its head.

In the catalogue curator Rachel Kent asks Aitken about the idea of entropy or decay evoked by the substitution of wild animals for humans. Aitken replies with a description of anonymity of the rooms: “the same room, and placement of phone, and plastic-wrapped glasses. In a sense, we are everywhere and nowhere when we occupy these places.”

This led him to the idea of introducing wild animals into them. The work “is not controlled or directed,” he says. “You see some of the animals on the spectrum that are violent and confident, and they do what they want, just like the western mountain lion. They’ll shred the lamp and rip the bed apart. On the other end of the spectrum, you might find jackrabbits or a deer that are timid and fearful, and they recede back into the shadows.”

Aitken is a Californian through and through: his speech patterns, his reliance on advanced technologies pioneered in that state, his soft-left engagement with the urgent political issues of our day. He walks the walk, as well as talking the talk, living in a way consistent with his research findings, and creates politically charged art less crudely than many. Despite his critique of manipulative advertising, his art has the slickness of marketing, rather than that sense of stretching the medium and struggling with meaning that permeates the best political art since the beginning of the 20th century.

Many creators of lasting political art insist they don’t set out to make art political. As Daniel Buren suggests in an interview for this paper, the very act of presenting a work in public is a political statement. He says that the incorporation of current political messages is nothing more than virtue signalling. “Most of these works are much less interesting than what you can read in the newspaper,” he said.

Aitken has a completely different take. “In a lot of ways, I see the exhibition as being something which is authored by each and every person: what they see, how they see it, how they piece together their own story, their own narrative within the work,” he said in a Zoom interview posted on the exhibition’s web page. “We spent about three years designing this exhibition for the MCA. We wanted to activate the architecture in a different way, to turn the museum inside out so the viewer could get lost.”

He wanted, he said, to make the exhibition speak to our future: “to be a kind of landscape of ideas the viewer could step into and explore and, ideally, if I’m very lucky, can leave having a different perspective on things”.

This is, of course, what museums do. And every visitor “authors” what they see as a matter of course. That includes examining the documentation of real-life happenings in the outside world. In strolling through the exhibition, perusing the catalogue and thinking about both afterwards, I swung between being drawn into Aitken’s ideas and his depiction of them and rejecting some of his work as being too obvious and slick.

As he might say, we make of an artwork or an exhibition what we will, inevitably merging our own experience of the world with the ideas the artist is trying to communicate. It is always viewers who decide what is art and what is politics – whether either of them triumph within their own parameters and whether they merge seamlessly into a successful work of art. In Aitken’s work, that can only be assessed once viewers are told what they’re seeing.

Doug Aitken: New Era is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until February 6, 2022.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Landscape of ideas".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.