Doug Aitken at The Art Institute

February 24, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

A few nights ago I had the pleasure of going to see Doug Aitken speak at the Art Institute. Over the course of his talk he went through the development of his practice, starting with his latest film, a story about an old man who’s’ sense of reality unravels. I made a little video of the beginning of his lecture (as a selfish pasttime, I’ve been really into filming performances in this way–where the image is predominantly dark and impossible to see).

I found myself thinking most about the artist as monument maker. Aitken has made four-story kaleidascopes with mirrors set overtop at fourty-five degree angles which follow the sun. The interior mirrors reflect an ever-changing abstract of the city inverted. He has also designed buildings sheathed in televesion screens which feature video of the ground that existed before the building’s construction. It makes the building itself look invisible, and Aitken seemed to feel, was a way to create land art without devastating land it incorporated. It reminded me of a walk I took with a friend who told me that other militarists had devised “invisible cloaks,” shields one could wear which reflected its surroundings digitally, like a chameleon–they almost worked perfectly (according to this friend, whom I realize is not the most reliable source). We of course made endless jokes about D&D folks who’d have a field day, eventually realizing how a) cool a cloak of invisibility would be and b) dangerous. Seeing Aitken’s buildings, I remembered that cloak. I suppose because some of his sonic installations use technology divined by militarists.

His work is stunning, giant, the film quality is comparable to big budget films with lush colors and sexy cuts. The whimsy and, even, idealist arc compound the sense of effortlessness in the work. And yet, all of those elements combine to leave me relatively suspicious, uneasy. Like underneath benign exterior there is something threatening.

I think it’s because the work occupies such a large scale–there is something aggressive about its seduction. It smells like money–these things could not be produced without it. The famous people he uses in his films–Keiffer Sutherland, Cat Power, Tilda Swinton–they themselves are emblematic of a lifestyle, one which, by Aitken’s use of them, Aitken himself seems to have graduated into.

His work fulfills our expectations of famous art-making, giant, flashy, well-traveled, dumb sometimes, sometimes really awesome. Isn’t that just a crazy waste of money? These objects cost a fortune, whether the high-end production of a film with movie stars in it, or a giant building projecting the images of his work. It’s big budget Hollywood art, one requiring a staff and airplanes and laborers.

*

In contrast, it’s interesting to consider Francis Alys who seems to place himself in an entirely other context. Again, perhaps like Coppola, Aitken simply suffers from an inborn American-ism–one invested in larger gestures. Meanwhile, Alys lives in Mexico city, cultivating his own persona (accidentally or otherwise) on a small scale, walking through a city with magnets, pushing a block of ice, chasing small tornados.

There is something more subversive and captivating about Alys’ work. In a world where everyone is clamoring to get attention, building taller and taller skyscrapers all the time trying to make more and more and more money to accomplish more and more, to leave a deeper mark on the surface of history, Alys seems quiet, like a spider, building a very small web.

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