Doug Aitken’s new show embraces real time
The American artist chimes in on the digital debate
Coming soon: Wallpaper* collaborates on an exclusive project with Doug Aitken in our November 2019 issue, on sale 10 October
The very American art of Doug Aitken is, most of it anyway, at once transcendent and dangerously of the now. He is in that sense a pop artist proper. He is also able and agile in many medium and an assembler of performances (he has fantastic taste in musical collaborators) and creative happenings. His art can be big, clever, embracing of technology, accessible, often happens outdoors or on giant or multiple screens and sometimes – as with Station to Station (2013-2015) and New Horizons (2019) – moves on tracks or through the air.
Sometimes though it is quiet and small, willing to be contained in a gallery space. His new show at London’s Victoria Miro gallery, Wharf Road branch, is that but as powerfully affecting as anything he has done. ‘Return to the Real’ is Aitken’s device to make us think about our devices, the experiential subletting to Instagram, the squeal and squawk of social media. ‘It’s a counterpoint to that world of de-materiality and speed,’ he says, ‘and about seeking something which is unique or being in a place which is physical and tactile or a moment which is unrepeatable.’
Head upstairs first where three ‘sonic sculptures’, circular shiny steel wind chimes, slowly rotate in front of a large screen which flickers and changes colour. It is mesmerisingly, meditatively effective as the light plays off slowly spinning steel columns. At the same time there is music and massed human voices, singing single words and short phrases – small chunks of a piece for 100 vocalists that Aitken has been working on for a year and half. And to one side is a female form, attempting contemplation. She is carved from (carefully chosen) layered carrara marble, heavy, Aitken, says, with ‘deep geological time’. But she is also bisected to reveal a perfectly polished mirrored interior. A soul, pure and unsmudged? It too picks up the light and flickers gently. She is our hero, a minor god magicking up this small restorative universe.
The piece was a long time in the installation and only toward the end, Aitken says, did he notice that it was rooted somehow in the American minimalism of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Steve Reich and Terry Riley and in the shamanistic art of Joseph Beuys and James Lee Byars. But if Reich and Riley were re-working the rhythms and clatter of the industrial age, this is post-industrial music; not the scattering circuit-board twitches of a solo Thom Yorke say but modern mantras, essential cycles, something to drown out the terrible noise of it all.
Downstairs things are almost domestic. A translucent acrylic young woman is slumped/resting at a table, a smart phone just out of reach. She is alive with colour but dead to the world, surrounded by light boxes, illuminated dreamscapes of delicious looking beds, swimming pools, aeroplanes, aspirational distractions, screens of plenty. Perhaps she is on her way upstairs to become our lady of the windchimes. Let’s hope so. §