Artists Interview Fairs USA

Frenetic, serene and everything in between

The artist on his desire to create something that is always evolving

Doug Aitken's Station to Station train on the move. Photo: Alayna Van Dervort

Time must run differently for Doug Aitken. When I talked to him on the phone, the Californian artist had recently wrapped up his idealistic, collaborative, experimental project Station to Station, which took him on a cross-country trip aboard an LED-streaked train with dozens of other artists and musicians, stopping at ten points along the way to create spontaneous happenings and performances. But there is no rest for the artist; Aitken, in Miami this week to talk about his “nomadic happening” for Art Basel Miami Beach’s Premiere Artist Talk today, has already started work on another major project.

“When you called earlier, I wasn’t able to answer the phone because there’s this workshop down the street from my studio that I go to, which allows me to work on a piece with my hands in this factory space,” he says. “That’s as simple as it gets almost… going into a space where you’re carving something and there’s no one there, a dirt floor and bars of lights, and you’re making a sculpture and nothing more. It balances everything out, it empowers you to work in a way where nothing becomes too precious so you can allow yourself to take greater risks.”

This shifting of gears from simple to complicated, frenetic to serene, is at the centre of Aitken’s practice, which results in work ranging from video and sound installations that can cover entire museum façades (note the plural), to text-based sculptures, to happenings that bring the viewer face-to-face with lightning-tongued auctioneers, a professional whip-cracker and acrobatic pole-dancers.

“I’ve always felt most at home when there are multiple things happening and growing,” Aitken says. He describes his process as organic and nonlinear. “Metaphorically, you can almost look at it as a tree and say that you have these roots, and you recognise that there are these fundamental things that are the core of who you are and what you make. But at the same time, this tree can have different branches that can go very, very far in one direction.”

Aitken says he likes to allow ideas to develop in their own way, rather than stick to what came before. “You let an idea live, grow and push until it becomes very distinctly its own, as opposed to trying to frame something within your body of work.” Perhaps this is why his work takes so many different forms and always seems to be evolving into something new. “It’s like the Galapagos, it’s Darwinistic.”

First steps

Aitken was born in Redondo Beach and lives and works a few miles up the coast in Venice. But after art school he spent most of the 1990s in New York, where the art market was reeling from a post-bubble collapse. “I wanted to be in a situation that had agitation,” he says. “It was an interesting period because I moved exactly when the art world was crashing—galleries were closing all around.” Aitken did not know anyone in the city, but started showing at spaces such as the artist-run commercial gallery AC Project Room and the New Museum. “My work was very much about experimentation, it was about trying to find a new language. [With] the people I ran into at that period, we would do shows in squats or unregulated places or storage rooms. There was a sense that there wasn’t capitalism in existence for a while.”

These early days of experimentation led to broader visions, and soon Aitken was watching for a storm to hit the site of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana (monsoon, 1995), cutting through bureaucratic red-tape to film high-security diamond mines in the Namib Desert (diamond sea, 1997), and getting a look behind the scenes of Bollywood (into the sun, 1999). Curators and gallerists started to pay attention and his career was made in 1999 when he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for his immersive multi-channel installation electric earth, 1999, part of Harald Szeemann’s first run at curating the international exhibition.

The work, which centres on a young man who dances his way around an abandoned city at night, is still one of Aitken’s most recognised pieces (see box). It went on view at the Nam June Paik Art Center in Seoul last month in a solo show celebrating Aitken winning the institution’s art prize (until 2 February 2014). “If you connect with a work of art, it’s almost as if you have a set of photographic memories, an experience of your relationship with that work,” he says. “Some work trails off and you forget about it but others almost become part of your DNA, they keep coming back. It’s strange when it’s your own work, like electric earth.

Aitken has been reviewing many of these early works for a monograph coming out with publisher Rizzoli in March next year. “It was the first time in my life that I had to look back,” he says, and although he describes the experience as a little awkward, he also says it “was almost like walking into this room and there are all these really old friends you haven’t talked to in a long time: ‘How are you doing, remember when we were in the Namib desert?’ ‘Yes, I remember that, the van got stuck when we were filming.’”

Specific encounters

Aitken’s work keeps coming back to the question of how time and memory are experienced, often through immersive installations and Allan Kaprow-inspired happenings that bring the viewer into the work. “The language of doing something live, like being involved in a happening, is very natural to me. It’s similar to what you come across when you’re filming something,” he says. “You have this very finite moment where something has to happen, it’s not something you can come back to tomorrow. I’m very attracted to the idea of projects that have a sense of urgency, that are time-based, via the process of making them or the idea that they’re being made for a specific encounter.”

Station to Station is the ultimate expression of this idea, born of out a desire to “create something that is always moving, always changing”. He also sees it as a kind of manifesto, a call to arms. “In some ways, I wanted Station to Station to be the roots of a different movement that was artist driven and was not confined by media or place. The project was born out of necessity, it wasn’t a whim. There is a need for new platforms, new situations for contemporary culture, to find our voices outside of the restrictions that surround us.” Aitken stresses the importance of experimentation, with its attendant risks and failures. “If we become satisfied with the standardisation that we see within art, then how does art retain its value? How does it continue to grow simultaneously with other aspects of culture and not slow down and become perhaps more irrelevant and capitalistic?”

The changing journey

While Station to Station trundled across the US, Aitken’s on-board production team put out a steady stream of short videos documenting some of the events and installations, but more is planned. Aitken says that, in addition to a film, he’d like to create work that can be given away and shared. But don’t expect to see him driving another locomotive. “If we do something else, it could be an opera house in the Amazon, it could be a barge in the Mediterranean. Station to Station needs to be a forever changing journey,” he says.

Meanwhile, Aitken is already on to his next show at the Sundance Film Festival in January, which will feature his free-standing structure The Source, 2012. The circular structure, first seen at the Liverpool Biennial last year, serves as a walk-in pavilion for Aitken’s four-minute interviews with other creative people such as Devendra Banhart, William Eggleston, Jacques Herzog, Mike Kelley, Philippe Parreno, Paolo Soleri, Tilda Swinton, Ryan Trecartin and Jack White. This work came out of conversations that Aitken has had over the years. “You have dinner late at night with someone and you’re talking about why they’re doing what they’re doing and sometimes you hear these things that would be so pointed, a crystallisation of an idea, it would be so pure,” he says.

And after that? Like his work, it all depends on one very important thing. “I just don’t have enough time, there’s never enough time in a day,” Aitken says. “It’s all a chess game really, it’s always moving and changing.” But one thing remains constant for him. “I can’t really imagine living without making things of some form.”

Selected works

song1, 2012, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Aitken wrapped the rounded exterior of the Smithsonian’s contemporary art museum in a 360-degree projection last year that played from sunset to midnight for nearly two months. For the soundtrack, he enlisted some of his regular musical collaborators, such as Beck, Björk and Devendra Banhart, to cover the 1934 ballad “I Only Have Eyes For You”.

sleepwalkers, 2007, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Not long after MoMA reopened in its new home in Manhattan, the walls surrounding its sculpture garden and street entrances became an outdoor theatre for one of Aitken’s most star-studded films to date. The work presented a faceted view of rushing city life, with characters played by Tilda Swinton, Donald Sutherland, Ryan Donowho, Cat Power and Seu Jorge.

electric earth, 1999, Venice Biennale

The work that propelled Aitken into the spotlight when it won him a Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale seems relatively modest compared with his later productions. A lone young man struts and dances his way across the empty urban sprawl. Sometimes simple is best though, with the piece still ­engaging new audiences nearly 15 years later.

Doug Aitken is in conversation with Michelle Kuo, the editor of Artforum, today (Thursday, 5 December), 10am-11:30am, in Hall C of the Miami Beach Convention Center

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