Doug Aitken: Flags and Debris
January 16 through March 13, 2021
By LITA BARRIE, March 2021
Doug Aitken’s multi-media exhibition explores fragmentation as a new narrative for our collective sense of uncertainty during the pandemic era. Isolated at home during the lockdown, Aitken challenged himself to create artwork from things around him, so he began cutting up old clothes to create quilt-like flags with abstract configurations of texts like “ Digital Detox,” “ Reality Fracking,“ “Data Mining,” “ Nowhere/Somewhere,” and ” Resist Algorithms.” The eight monumental collaged banners are Aitken’s first venture into using texts and fabric in a do-it-yourself aesthetic that recalls Arte Povera with an implicit rejection of artistic conformity.
These quilts come to life in a multi-screen film installation featuring members of L.A Dance Project wrapped inside the protective covers, activating them into “ liquid sculptures.” The camouflaged dancers move, toss and flay about in an eerie, deserted Covid-19 urban landscape of shuttered stores , derelict parking lots and empty strip malls. These mysterious, shape-shifting bundles resemble ghosts that are simultaneously present and absent in a dormant city. The quilts are also seen hanging on walls like flags only to fall onto the pavement or into the L.A. River, like detritus. The unseen dancers are anonymous figures who could be anyone - including us - hidden from sight in the era of social separation. Amidst the devastation Aitken captures fleeting moments of beauty that suggest human resilience in the bleakest of times.
The manual aspect of cutting fabric into words and phrases became a meditative activity for Aitken which developed organically from his background as a film maker, cutting up film scenes to create a narrative. Flags are symbolic as message carriers, however, the abstract patterns Aitken created with words have a cinematic quality when viewed from a distance. But seen close-up, the handmade stitches show obsessive detailing that reflects the anxiety the artist experienced searching for a way to survive - creatively and intellectually - in such a Darwinist period.
The centerpiece of the exhibition I Lost Track ( 2020) uses a text by Joan Didion, from The White Album (1979). The fragmented words can be read vertically or horizontally, upright or upside down in a visual play upon confusing readings that reference Didion’s “On the Road”. Her essay begins with the question of where we are heading, which can never be answered and ends with the idea that America is a “projection on air” : a kind of hologram, an invisible grid of image, opinion and electronic impulse. Three meticulously crafted light box sculptures with aerial shots of city lights, in a side gallery, explore this sense of uncertainty in moments of stillness.
This exhibition was not pre-meditated but developed intuitively from driving alone in his car through desolate areas in Los Angeles, late at night and memorizing the typographies. Later, when Aitken returned to the sleeping city with dancers, he was able to go rogue and film anywhere without the usual restraints of needing permission for permits. This new freedom gave Aitken space for experimentation using unorthodox ways of working. The dancers improvised their jerky movements to suggest tumbleweeds or body bags blowing in the wind. The haunting sounds of nature replace usual traffic noise which intensifies the visual experience of being engulfed inside a vast metropolitan emptiness.
This exhibition is a bridge to navigating new spaces for self-reflection through a choreography of image, language and sound which all point toward future change - accentuated by lush potted plants symbolizing growth. Aitken is acclaimed for art film installations with high production values, so his new pairing of rough hewn fabric textual works and film, is a powerful statement about the interconnectedness of everything we see, read and hear. The visceral feeling one gets is that although everything around us might be fragmented, we are still the authors of our own experience.
The popularity of virtual museums during the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked renewed interest in Andre Malraux’s notion of a museum without walls or “musee imaginaire“ in his magnum opus, The Voices of Silence (1951). Aitken also began to think about new ways of disseminating art outside gallery confines during this period of disruption. He created wheat-pasted posters featuring QR codes at construction sites around the city; these can be scanned with a cell phone to watch the 10-minute film installed in the gallery, as an experiential way to democratize his artwork in an “egalitarian art encounter.”
Today, many socially conscious artists are responding creatively to the pandemic, but few have been able to imagine the future and move toward shaping it aesthetically and metaphorically with such poetic fecundity. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author