Doug Aitken's facility behind the camera and in the editing room allows his works to slip effortlessly into our media-saturated cultural unconscious. He summons the familiar seduction of commercial video to craft frenetic but oddly comfortable models of contemporary experience. In the past Aitken has been drawn to landscapes whose beauty hides a darker edge, whether it is the environmental trauma of African diamond mining in diamond sea (1997) or the mass suicides at Jonestown in Guyana in monsoon (1995). More recently he has concentrated on character-driven, suggestively narrative forms, including the celebrated electric earth (1999), in which the protagonist absorbs (or stimulates) the spastic motion of his vacant urban environment. Two of the three new film-video works in the artist's simultaneous exhibitions continued in this vein, with very different results.
The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia premiered interiors (2002). In a large room visitors entered a cross-shaped space whose walls consisted of transparent scrims. A circular bench suggested the middle as the best viewing position. The fabric allowed the viewer to see the projections (and other visitors) from 'outside'. If we imagine the structure as a cathedral, the 'choir' screen/wall facing the viewer and the 'transept' screen/walls on either side featured a rotating sequence of four character-focused scenarios of the same length and form, each with an individual soundtrack. With the three screen/walls each presenting one scenario at a time (viewers experienced three of the four simultaneously), the work cycles through four combinations. Each scenario begins with a contemplative survey of the landscape around the character before the action builds. Then, in a period of concentrating energy, a worker in a Los Angeles helicopter factory sands a painted chopper before erupting into tapdancing, an auctioneer in Tokyo tours his auditorium before practising his rapid-fire delivery, a handball player slowly puts on her gloves before aggressively taking to the court, and Outkast member Andre Benjamin wanders pensively before he is transported to a foggy environ where he explodes into rap. The rhythmic patterns of each character's activities increase frantically, seeming at times both to compete with and build from one another. As we jump maddeningly from screen to screen, trying to keep up, a threshold is suddenly reached: the editing breaks into a barrage of staccato cuts and the audio tracks merge into a unison of quick clicks before the segment abruptly ends. This subtly rendered harmonization of soundtracks and imagery during this unified finale leaves us with a sense of fleeting connection between the characters, each mirroring the others in their isolation, never quite coming together. By fracturing the narrative structure and corresponding sound across the architectural environment, Aitken overloads our perceptual capacity. We become aware of the projections' interrelationships only gradually, arriving at a coherent understanding just as the characters shatter and collapse under the ferocity of their own energy. Aitken pulls off a feat of disharmonization: we find ourselves out of sync with the characters' emotional world at the moment they are most synchronized with each other.
The character-focused piece at 303 Gallery, however, fell flat. Entitled new skin (2002), it centres on a young woman who is losing her vision. While such a plot has obvious allure, it already seemed a bit facile when Lars von Trier put Björk through the paces. Here the woman is struggling to make a mental archive of as many pictures as she can get her eyes on while a digital clock counts down to the inevitable blackness. Aitken never quite convinces us of his character's alarm, and the odd intersection of two elliptical screens on which the footage is projected doesn't require much from us - is the form meant to suggest blindness, perhaps?
The circular screens of on (2002) in the gallery's mirrored front room had a much more intimate relationship with the imagery, and provided a more oblique meditation on vision, death and memory while again playing at the edge of our perceptual capabilities. Aitken believes that we often perceive the world in a fragmentary, non-linear fashion; accordingly, he is at his strongest when he combines a familiar visual and aural grammar with an environment that adds up to more than we can comfortably absorb in anything greater than fragments. In on our glances are deflected from the ocular screens into the infinite reflections of the mirrored walls, catching a glimpse of ourselves anxiously trying to figure out what we are looking at as the images pulse towards us at the speed of a dulling heartbeat. Coming out of the artist's 1998 photographic series the mirror, which spectacularized blank urban billboards and signage, on's blank orbs gradually take over the vistas like expanding blind spots, creating a travelogue of a generic landscape that is constantly disappearing just as we grasp its approximate details.
Aitken described electric earth as an effort to work with those moments of 'sublime synchronicity' between individuals and their environments, where, like two gears engaging, people suddenly find themselves in perfect harmony with the speed of the world around them. Periodically Aitken seems to fall behind the speed of his audience's constantly changing (quickening) mode of spectatorship. We recognize too much in the way the film is put together, and when we find we've already internalized what we're seeing, it feels pedantic. When everything is working, however, Aitken is just out ahead of us, and our struggle to experience the piece fully will be rewarded with a flash of synchronous beauty.
First published in Issue 72