Doug Aitken holds a mirror up to Detroit’s history inside a former bank
In cities like New York or Miami, the concept of unused space does not exist – anything inactive is demolished to make way for new developments. But until its fortunes reversed in the last ten years, Detroit sat in a state of arrested development for nearly five decades prior.
Sometimes the results are mightily entropic, as highlighted by ruins in the city’s more devastated areas; perhaps less visible to those outside Detroit are the soaring examples of architecture at the peak of wealth and industry, preserved in unparalleled beauty. All they lack is something to reflect their secret grandeur.
Enter artist Doug Aitken, renowned for his large-scale interventions that deal directly with the soul of natural and manmade spaces. Over the last year and a half, Aitken developed an ambitious plan to reprise Mirage – his 2017 work of land art installed as part of Desert X in Palm Springs – within the 70,000 sq ft interior space of the historic State Savings Bank, which has sat unoccupied in the midst of downtown Detroit for several decades.
‘I saw this [potential location] and I kind of stopped in my tracks – it was this space which was very elegant and minimal, and kind of frozen in time, almost crystallised,’ says Aitken. ‘I got out there as quickly as I could.’
Photography: Conner MacPhee. Courtesy of the artist and Library Street Collective
Mirage Detroit employs the same one-storey ranch house form as its predecessor, but where the mirrored surfaces of Mirage reflected upon the vastness of untamed desert landscape meeting the fringe of human development, the later iteration serves to bring to light the rich layers of history contained within the host structure — and by extension, the city of Detroit.
Creating this work within an environment lacking natural light of course required lighting as an additional consideration, and this is provided by lighting designer Andi Watson (well-known for his work with Radiohead). The ever-shifting lightscape illuminates and shadows different aspects of the installation, which is entirely set upon a bed of raw river rock indigenous to the region (and treacherous to impractical footwear, visitors be warned).
Aitken’s work echoes that of the nearby Mobile Homestead, artist Mike Kelley’s reinterpretation of his childhood ranch-style home in the Metro Detroit suburbs, and may hold, for Aitken, a similar effort to exorcise personal history. ‘My entire family is from Detroit – I’m actually the only person who’s not from there,’ said Aitken. ‘I only ever knew the stories and mythology of it, so this enables me to go back and spend time and immerse myself within the city, not just in a superficial way, but with the root system.’
The nature of Aitken’s work dictates that the viewer bring something of their own to the experience: it is impossible to approach Mirage Detroit without reflecting upon the surface, and therefore, reflecting upon both the personal and institutional memory of the surrounding space. §