Doug Aitken is Redefining How We Experience Art | Innovation | Smithsonian
(Photo illustration by Timothy Archibald)

Doug Aitken is Redefining How We Experience Art

The artist uses video, music, mirrors, railroad cars, even entire buildings to create works that make every viewer a participant

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It’s 4:39 in the afternoon, the sky’s sliding sun is slicing in half the black canal 100 feet from the front door, and Doug Aitken’s house is about to explode.

“It’s about that time,” the artist agrees, glancing at the clock on his laptop. When the day burns down its fuse to dusk, the frescoed walls of the living room will atomize, the staircase that is a walk-in kaleidoscope will splinter into shards of twilight, and the copy of Ulysses standing on the bookshelf would go up in flames if it were paper rather than a doorknob that pushes open a secret entrance to the bathroom.

None of this will raise the eyebrow of anyone familiar with Aitken’s work. Vanishing boundaries, fractured space and clandestine passages have been the language of his art for two decades. Age 45-going-on-overgrown-beach-kid, at the moment he sits barefoot in his bomb of a house preparing for his upcoming new work Station to Station and has just come off the acclaimed Mirror, which overlooks Seattle, with its incessant echoes of city and wilderness laying siege to the coordinates of common perception. The limits of what we perceive are the concern of everything Aitken does. This includes building a house that mirrors himself, and conjuring bigger-than-life creative wonders around the world that invite not just our surveillance but occupancy. Aitken’s mission is to shatter all the modes by which we shackle our common dreams.

He looks up from the laptop. Tick, tick, tick, goes the world outside: Can you hear that? the smile on his face says. All the old ways of imagining are about to go boom.

***

Bound by columns of rocketing light and affixed glistening to the side of the Seattle Art Museum, Mirror is what Aitken calls an “urban earthwork.”

LED tiles a dozen floors high and wrapping around the museum’s corner cohere into a single screen that flickers hundreds of hours of film of the surrounding sea and mountains, ascending buildings and asphalt junctions: the vapors of a city’s life and the plumes of a city’s reveries. Sensors outside the museum endlessly collect data of whatever’s happening that moment in downtown Seattle at the intersection of Union and First—traffic jams and invading weather fronts—which then is translated by computerized projectors into algorithms that dictate a selection from footage, already shot by Aitken’s team of cinematographers and editors and designers and engineers, of the surrounding Pacific Northwest. Blossoming and collapsing, the images are shuffled and spindled, sputtering up and down the screen and across its length in incrementally transforming variations. Leave and when you return in a couple of hours what you see will resemble what you saw before but not precisely, in the same way that the light of one moment is never exactly the light of the preceding moment.

“Or,” Aitken elaborates, “it’s a kind of map” that evolves out of the ingredients of its own place. If part of our relationship with any mirror is the act of gazing into it—an observer on the other side of First Avenue observes Mirror being observed by those it observes back: skyscraper-art as an enormous Chinese puzzle-box—then the piece typifies how Aitken’s work isn’t “fixed or frozen, not something you just see and interpret. Mirror constantly changes to invisible rhythms, like a series of rings radiating out. It creates an infinite library of musical notes that can be played and repositioned, reordered.” Aitken often talks of his art in musical terms, Mirror’s unveiling last spring accompanied by the vertiginous siren call of composer Terry Riley, who regards Aitken as a kindred soul. “He morphs the ordinary into the extraordinary,” says Riley, “carving out a singular cinematic art.”

Doug Aitken is the artist of disappearing dimensions and the psychic exodus. Pursuing a new sense of wonder, long ago he abandoned more reasonably circumscribed canvases for one the size of a planet; using music, film, construction design, pixelated theatrics, willing participants and no small amount of fast-talking showmanship, he creates videopaloozas of murmuring sonics and drifting visuals—equal parts Antonioni, Eno and Disney. Since the 1990s, beating the calendar by a decade, he’s been laying 21st-century siege to 20th-century structures, “eliminating the space,” as Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum acting director Kerry Brougher puts it, “between the object and viewer—blurring lines and turning art into a multifaceted, collaborative experience.”

Growing up in Southern California in the 1970s and ’80s, having already cultivated an adolescent habit of making art out of whatever he found lying around the garage or beach, Aitken got a scholarship to Pasadena’s Art Center only to feel stymied by any drawing that had a frame. Embracing a tradition (if that can even be the word for it) belonging to not only Riley but graphic conceptualist John Baldessari and experimental auteur Stan Brakhage, in the ’90s he moved to New York, where he lived and worked in an unfurnished loft, confronted by the emancipation of having nothing.

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