L'Officiel Art

Artist Doug Aitken Is on a Mission to Bring Us Back to Reality

"The value of art is to take us to a state where we're suddenly completely engaged — where we're without a sense of future or past."
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JOSEPH AKEL: In the last year or so, you’ve worked on large-scale installations—Mirage in the deserts of Palm Springs, your “Underwater Pavilions” off the coast of Catalina Island, and The Garden in Arhaus, Denmark—that speak to experience, embodiment, time, and perception. Is there a conceptual thread that links all of these together?


DOUG AITKEN: One of the things that you brought up just now was this idea of connectivity and experience. As you were talking, I was thinking about the “Underwater Pavilions” and the first time I had a chance to swim underwater towards the sculptures. There was this moment where I found myself sinking under the Pacific Ocean with a weight belt on over my wetsuit, and in that moment, I had this out-of-body experience. Here I am, I’m weightless, I’m in this completely vulnerable and foreign situation, and everything feels disorienting, and I’m sinking. 


[Photograph by Julien Roubinet]

At the same time, I found myself suddenly becoming at one with my breathing through an oxygen tank, swimming in slow motion and floating towards these reflective underwater sculptures. I felt this incredible sense of connectedness and this love of the real—the idea that I could reach down and scrape my finger across a barnacle on a crusty rock or brush against this forest of kelp. All these things became so heightened and so sensory, and I think in some ways that is, to me, where art can go and what it can give us in the future. I think it can bring us a new awareness of what’s around us. And, whether it’s material or dematerial, I think discovering artwork or experiencing artwork should be something which is very personal, something which the viewer authors instead of something which is mediated and given to them.

There are works that you create that endure by the nature of their construction or their installation and then there are others that have this ephemeral quality to them. What is it about the exploration of time and duration that appeals to you? And what is it about the phenomena of time and its perception that you feel is of importance?


Time is the one absolute and the one continuum. That said, I think in a lot of ways what artwork can do is sculpt time—it can shape time in different ways. It can create conditions where time can appear to be more elastic or more compressed. In a sense, we’re not working with aesthetics or materials so much as we’re working with time. I think if you look at time, you say, What are the moments that you really remember? They’re often moments of disruption—they’re not ordinary moments like commuting to work, or having the same meal. Instead, they’re moments where something you’ve encountered—whether it’s violent, harmonious, or sublime—something has snapped you out of the redundancy of everyday life. When those moments happen, you often find yourself thrust into the present, you find yourself really looking around you and things open up—it’s a different state that you’re in. I feel that the artworks that I have seen that have created that state of awareness are those which are the most indelible. I see that the value of art is to take us to a state where we’re suddenly completely engaged—where we’re without a sense of future or past.

That begs the question: If the value of art is to somehow make us more present, does that imply that we are living in a more disengaged time?


I read that more images were generated last year than in the history of humankind. We have this incredible velocity that we’re moving through, in terms of connectivity, but also just information. I think we are in a very Darwinist era, which poses some very interesting questions: How do we adapt to this? How do we survive? How do we live and move through this new system? I’ve noticed that there’s this pendulum: On one hand, we exist in this state of incredible speed and, on the other, there is a new desire for the real, a new desire for the tactile.


[Image: Inside Me, 2018, clear mirror, resin and concrete. Courtesy of Doug Aitken and 303 Gallery, photograph by Dakota Higgins]

How important is it to experience your works versus seeing pictures of them? We’re speaking of experience, of tactility, of embodiment, especially in provoking a return to the real and yet, for many people, the only way they will engage with your art is through static reproductions of them.


That’s such a relevant question right now, because everything is reproduced and constantly disseminated. What is a “real experience” is the question. And it’s not really something that I have an answer for. A lot of this talk gets us back to question of: What do we really retain? I think what we retain is the experience, not the physicality of the object, not something which is made of material. So, looking at where art can move in the future requires us reconsidering where and how we engage with it now. Presently, we have the gallery and museum and a few other templates—land art, street art. But what if we could say that art is everywhere? That every place has the possibility to be transformed, to create and to alter our awareness, our perception. That’s a daunting idea. But, at the same time, I think that is where we’re heading and I think there will eventually be a movement away from the material.

Speaking of the move away from the material, your latest body of work New Era, prominently features Martin Cooper, the man widely credited with discovering cellular technology and who created the first cellular phone. Why is Cooper such a compelling figure for you?


New Era to me is really a modern mythology, and I think that it starts with this very simple story, a very human story, which is something we often lack when we look at the future or technology. In this story, you have this older man with a gray beard, rather frail. He starts explaining this philosophy, which led to the creation of the first cell phone. With New Era, I was very fascinated by the idea that you have a human starting point to this technological advance. In a lot of ways, we’ve become so detached—without even thinking—when we look at the world around us and engage with the tools like a cell phone or computer that have become so commonplace. And there’s something about that disconnect that I wanted to explore. With New Era I wanted to take you back into the cave, to the point where it all began.


Aitken's exhibition, New Era, is showing at 303 Gallery (555 West 21 St, NY) until May 25. 

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