Shifting Perception through Doug Aitken’s “Electric Earth” at MOCA
By Genie Davis
Through January 15th
“Electric Earth”, a collection of Doug Aitkin’s impressive video and sculptural works, is an immersive and often interactive experience.
MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary has its glass entrance painted over, turning the exhibition space into what seems like a movie theater from the moment viewers enter the space. Visitors immediately enter into Aitken’s world.
Hushed and dark, we are drawn first to the vast circular projection of Aitken’s “Song 1,” which uses the classic “I Only Have Eyes for You” as the score and soul of this piece. Visually we see everything from a parking garage where red cars perform an ersatz Busby Berkeley dance routine to Tilda Swinton clad in ghostly white singing an ode to herself, to drivers, workers, and city walkers looking past and through others, into mirrors, empty parking lots, and glittery L.A. skylines.
Aitken may be saying we only really, truly see ourselves – or care to see what we want to see in ourselves and in both our external and internal landscapes. We only see our own perspective, our own city, our own dreams. Or perhaps he’s reflecting on illusion. What we see is not quite what we get, even in observing ourselves.
Absorbing both in content, palette, and even in its screening inside and outside a circular multi -screen experience, the overall affect is mesmerizing. It was hard to tear away from this opening piece to visit the rest of the galleries.
Upstairs, Chloe Sevigny is a disaffected woman, her story of aimless travel presented in multiple screens in a mirrored cube of a room that reflects her image and our own. This “Black Mirror” shows not only her story but ours as we drift in and out of Aitken’s world, and it’s a bleak view. We can travel far and go nowhere.
The titular piece, “Electric Earth,” careens through four rooms separated or linked with nearly translucent barriers. Following a young man who bounces like a pinball from laundromat to neon splashed street, we are in the realm of Nicolas Winding Refn’s film “Drive”, following the man, the night, and the city on an excursion that tilts dangerously between exhilaration and fear.
These elements are also present in other work such as the glowing ghostly, light-shifting white sculpture of a payphone and the eerie yet melodic amplified drip of water into a deep pool carved into the floor of a Geffen back gallery.
Fear, excitement, ecstasy – all there as well on four, seemingly large-as-drive-in movie screens, projecting anxious images of wild animals from white peacocks to deer caged in a motel room. Are we caged? Trapped? Free? Wild? This piece, “Migration (empire)” confines us to watching, riveted, as free things refuse to be tamed.
Other compelling works depict reflections of passing seasons on the facade of a lighthouse, and Aitken’s own home, equipped with audio sensors that capture the movements of the earth’s shifting tectonic plates.
If we are spies in an elliptical landscape here, we are nervous participants sharing the same table that the artist’s parents shared, as they gaze reassuringly into each other’s aging eyes, the house they are sitting in quite literally falling apart around them in another compelling video installation.
The transitory nature of life itself, the dream-like gloss of life in LA and its mirrored sheen is also beautifully captured in glowing circular photographs and wall sculptures such as Aitken’s dimensionally lettered, mirrored “Sunset.” The show reflects and refracts our own capacity to reflect life. The lucid dream of our own existence – this is Aitken’s oeuvre.
This is a movie theater of the mind – memory and magic fused in an otherworldly space. Emerge from the museum’s visual cocoon into daylight and find yourself upended. Is what we are seeing on the outside as real as what we see on the inside?
Decide for yourself. The exhibition runs through January 15th in Little Tokyo.