Doug Aitken's Architectural Installation in Detroit Shifts Perspectives

Mirror, mirror on the wall.
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If one purpose of art is to give viewers a new perspective, Doug Aitken certainly excels.

To do so, the 50-year-old artist utilizes abstract, mirrored surfaces, as a major facet of his work: for Aitken’s Mirage Palm Springs installation last year, he set up a fully reflective Americana ranch in the middle of the desert and in 2016, the artist submerged three massive mirrored pavilions into the ocean off the coast of Los Angeles. But Aitken works just as easily with sculpture, photography, video, and what can be described as experiential installations—the piece was intended to raise awareness about our negative impact on the health of the ocean, but to see it, visitors were required to scuba dive from a boat.

His latest installation, aptly titled Mirage Detroit, takes the vast interior of a 118-year-old abandoned bank in Downtown Detroit, breaks it into pieces, and reflects it back at the viewers, mimicking the surreal experience of being inside a kaleidoscope.

Aitken first learned of the space thanks to local residents, who he met while giving a talk at the College for Creative Studies years earlier. He was fascinated with the city and the community in equal measure, inspired to create something by the friends he made and to isolate a moment in Detroit’s history.


JANE GAYDUK: How did you come upon the space for Detroit Mirage? Why this city? Why this building?

DOUG AITKEN: Detroit is an open canvas of opportunity. There's so much land, there's so much architecture that's inhabited or uninhabited as well as a really beautiful, grassroots energy here. Things happen through community. I was fortunate enough to meet some people who helped me look around, but also to understand the city better.

Eventually, we found a space that wasn't on the outskirts, that wasn't a destruction-porn site. But instead it was right in the middle of downtown, it was this bank building which is 100 years old. It hasn't been open to the public in decades. When you walk inside it, it's very enigmatic and mysterious. It's this huge cavernous space about a block long. It's almost crystallized in time, preserved in a way. When I say preserve, I say preserved as to how it was 100 years ago. We were looking at the space and thinking about the history of the city, the country, the idea of the movement West.

I was drawn to it. I tried to think of this idea if we made a piece like a mirage, a large-scale installation, a sculpture, which is entirely made of reflections of what's around it. It's in the form of a house, the outline and shape and form, and rooms of a suburban house but made entirely out of mirror. You have this incredibly familiar form, this space you and I have been in a million times, have driven by, have lived in—yet at the same time, it's rendered with that history. You see yourself walking through it, multiplied a thousand times. You see it surround you, reflect in it. I became fascinated by this dichotomy and tension between ancient American architecture, this kind of mythology of capitalism, this idea of the urban space. This sculpture, which feels like it's from another world, it's almost holographic in a way.  


This time, you chose a space without any natural light, which is usually a facet of your installations. Did you want to do this installation in a new way differently?

The space has a few windows, not many, but when I started developing the project, I thought, "Could we make artwork that is evergreen?" Which is completely changing, which is never fixed or frozen. When we think of sculpture or public art or exhibitions, we think of art as something that is fixed. Never to be altered again.

I became obsessed with the opposite—"How can I make this something completely in flux?" If you came here tomorrow, you could see something that if you came two hours, two days later, it would be radically different and that led me in the direction of thinking about light. Light is very much what art is: It's limited by what we see. What if we could alter the light like a composition? Like light as music. Why does the light always have to be white light? It can be warm, it could glow, it could have a sense of nourishment. It can switch to being cool and existential and isolating. We wrote this composition of light, which is unrepeatable. It keeps moving, and changing, and cycling.  


And as people also start to interact with the installation, how does the nature of it change?

We had the opening last night, and there were a lot of people, so it's interesting because you see the work activate, with this communal experience. It's very different than if we had done it this morning, maybe, if it were the two of us walking. I'm interested in seeing art creating something which empowers the viewer. The viewer doesn't see and digest, but instead is engaged in and in conversation with the work. I like the idea of it. You can own that experience, you can author your own narrative. I don't see it being one way or another.


When you have a mirrored, kaleidoscopic installation, the potential for viewers to post about it on social media is very high, adding a whole other level of engagement. How do you react to your work being conversed with in that way?

It's strange—it's a conditional love. I don't feel one way or another about it, it's interesting that people want to share and freeze a moment in time and credit it to me. I think everyone encounters this work differently. I met a woman last night who lives around here, and she said, "I just want to come back sometime soon and spend a few hours here alone. I just want to be alone and not talk to anyone, and just be inside with the work." I think that's the other side of the coin. The idea that maybe one of the values of art is not necessarily acceleration but deceleration.


Do you like to be alone in your own installations?

I've been working on this project for two years, and we've been building it for four months, and I've been out here for...two weeks, or something. The first, whole chapter of the project was myself and people from the studio just working on it, kind of every day. You make these projects, you have these long periods of time working on it, and then there's a strange moment where the door opens. And it's no longer yours.


You feel when you make a piece of art that once it's released to the public, you lose ownership of it?

It seems like it goes away for me. Not much more for you to do, so it leaves you and goes to someone else. Transference. It's part of art-making.


You also work with so many different materials—buildings, videos, mirrors, music. Are you partial to any on those?

The idea and impulse always come first. That leads you on a path where it sculpts what language it's going to be—what medium—how that concept is articulated and expressed. I don't like working in a linear way: from one single project, then stopping, then starting something else. I like a polyphonic way of working, different forms of movement at different times. Sometimes it might take five years, sometimes five days. Everything is fluid that way.  


What are you most proud of in your work so far?

I don't think about it like that. For me, it's all about moving forward, and what we haven't made that could be made. Diamonds in the rough. I don't tend to look back on my art or my work very much at all.

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