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September 12, 2016

Spotlight: Doug Aitken Q+A

Artist Doug Aitken stands in the mirrored stairwell of his Venice Beach home
Photo Credit: Sam Frost
ultraworld L, 2007, mixed‐media collage
Photo Credit: John Berens
Sunset (black), 2012, hand-­carved foam, epoxy, LEDs, hand‐silkscreened acrylic.
Photo Credit: John Berens
99¢ dreams, 2007. Neon in glass case.
Photo Credit: John Berens

In our September issue, artist Doug Aitken invited C into his home and studio to jam on his sonic tables and discuss his upcoming survey at MOCA, “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth.” Aitken, who just announced a groundbreaking underwater installation of mirrored “pavilions” off of Catalina Island in conjunction with the exhibition (and is represented by Regen Projects in L.A.), was such a font of art philosophy and cultural musings that we couldn’t fit it all in. Here, more from our conversation.

C: You’re a native of Los Angeles but lived and worked in New York for a while before ultimately returning. What is appealing to you about being here?
Doug Aitken: The city is so diverse; there’s no center, so you can always pull from different influences or different mediums. It’s all there to be explored—like quicksand that’s just kind of moving, and you fall through it and open up your eyes and your someplace completely different—even if it’s a place you’ve been already. That’s the interesting thing about working here.

C: You are known for working across mediums and with a wide range of collaborators in different fields. Why is cross-pollination in art so appealing to you?
DA: In my opinion that’s where the possibilities of contemporary art lie—in erasing these silos. It will be very interesting as we move into the future to look at a form of art that denies all boundaries and everything kind of becomes fluid, like a liquid flow of ideas.

What made you decide to do a survey at MOCA?
DA: [MOCA Director] Phillipe Vergne—I like him so much and he’s an old friend and is curating the exhibition. And I thought that maybe we could create a situation where you open the door to the museum, and you step inside and there’s no sense of time and no sense of location. Those things just erase, and thus the viewer becomes empowered. There is a potential to have this body of work come to life in a different way than it ever has before. We tried to change the idea of a survey; to use existing pieces as building blocks, but reconfigure them completely so it’s this new landscape. Then it became inspiring.

C: You’re known for your ability to “capture the now” in your work; how do you manage to stay present in your own life in a world in which technology continues to pose so many distractions?
DA: These tools that are surrounding us, we’ve made them—they didn’t fall from space. Marty Cooper who is 87 years old and is the inventor of the cell phone thought it was a great idea to have a phone you could walk around with—so we have Darwinistically created all of these tools. At the same time, the way we think is very nonlinear. It’s this huge field of fragments we kind of pick and move through in a semi-intuitive way, and these devices kind of aid us in that. When I think about this exhibition I think about the idea of working within that language, a language that’s at home with being fragmented—having pieces of sentences and words and experiences. I think that’s kind of close to how we see things.

C: Can you tell us about some of the complementary programs you’re working on for the MOCA show?
DA: We’re trying to create a series called Idea of the West, and each event will be like a talk or a conversation with different known and unknown specialists—whether it’s about the idea of film and moving image, or the idea of communication, or the idea of landscape, or the idea of the ocean. It will become this living dialogue, and not just museum talks in a dry auditorium.

CWhat direction is most exciting to you in art right now?
DA: I want to see art that’s living. That’s changing. That has the power to evolve over time. We have this very fixed and often traditional view of what art is: we still see it as somewhat frozen or existing within a photograph or image, or on the wall of an exhibition space, but I’d like to see things that when you go back for a second glance three months later they’ve completely transformed. I think that just creates a different kind of relationship. And I think that we need to look at the ideas and concepts of our generation while we’re alive, and focus on that instead of always looking to the past for reference. There’s never been a moment in time where there’s been more of a democratization of communication. Where you can have a voice and your voice can travel.

C: Your installations are logistically ambitious to say the least—has there ever been an idea whose realization has eluded you?
DA: There’s a risk of collapse in everything. A lot of projects never get made. I think the ones that do get made, you find yourself in some kind of Fitzcarraldo situation where you have to will them into existence. It’s important to take on projects where you’re not sure if they’re going collapse, and you see that there is failure inherently in the program.

C: In the last ten years L.A. has been increasingly recognized as an art capital, what are your thoughts on the city as a magnet for artists?
DA: Someone arriving off the plane from Europe to be in Los Angeles might think it’s this incredibly new, young city with very little past, but in fact, the history here—though shallow in time—is deep in its root system. We have everything from the origins of beat culture and psychedelia, to The Cool School and the Ferus gallery, to artists like Bruce Conner or Wallace Berman, to punk rock from the South Bay or whatever else. Underneath this seemingly placid surface, I think there’s this restlessness that you find in the west—a sense of discontent and individuality, which is really kind of profound.

“Doug Aitken: Electric Earth” is on view at MOCA’s The Geffen Contemporary through Jan. 15, 2017;

By Melissa Goldstein

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