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Artist Doug Aitken Is on a Mission to Bring Us Back to Reality

"The value of art is to take us to a state where we're suddenly completely engaged — where we're without a sense of future or past."
Reading time 6 minutes

JOSEPH AKEL: In the last year or so, you’ve worked on large-scale installations—Mirage in the deserts of Palm Springs, your “Underwater Pavilions” off the coast of Catalina Island, and The Garden in Arhaus, Denmark—that speak to experience, embodiment, time, and perception. Is there a conceptual thread that links all of these together?

 

DOUG AITKEN: One of the things that you brought up just now was this idea of connectivity and experience. As you were talking, I was thinking about the “Underwater Pavilions” and the first time I had a chance to swim underwater towards the sculptures. There was this moment where I found myself sinking under the Pacific Ocean with a weight belt on over my wetsuit, and in that moment, I had this out-of-body experience. Here I am, I’m weightless, I’m in this completely vulnerable and foreign situation, and everything feels disorienting, and I’m sinking. 

 

[Photograph by Julien Roubinet]

At the same time, I found myself suddenly becoming at one with my breathing through an oxygen tank, swimming in slow motion and floating towards these reflective underwater sculptures. I felt this incredible sense of connectedness and this love of the real—the idea that I could reach down and scrape my finger across a barnacle on a crusty rock or brush against this forest of kelp. All these things became so heightened and so sensory, and I think in some ways that is, to me, where art can go and what it can give us in the future. I think it can bring us a new awareness of what’s around us. And, whether it’s material or dematerial, I think discovering artwork or experiencing artwork should be something which is very personal, something which the viewer authors instead of something which is mediated and given to them.

At the same time, I found myself suddenly becoming at one with my breathing through an oxygen tank, swimming in slow motion and floating towards these reflective underwater sculptures. I felt this incredible sense of connectedness and this love of the real—the idea that I could reach down and scrape my finger across a barnacle on a crusty rock or brush against this forest of kelp. All these things became so heightened and so sensory, and I think in some ways that is, to me, where art can go and what it can give us in the future. I think it can bring us a new awareness of what’s around us. And, whether it’s material or dematerial, I think discovering artwork or experiencing artwork should be something which is very personal, something which the viewer authors instead of something which is mediated and given to them.

That begs the question: If the value of art is to somehow make us more present, does that imply that we are living in a more disengaged time?

 

I read that more images were generated last year than in the history of humankind. We have this incredible velocity that we’re moving through, in terms of connectivity, but also just information. I think we are in a very Darwinist era, which poses some very interesting questions: How do we adapt to this? How do we survive? How do we live and move through this new system? I’ve noticed that there’s this pendulum: On one hand, we exist in this state of incredible speed and, on the other, there is a new desire for the real, a new desire for the tactile.

 

[Image: Inside Me, 2018, clear mirror, resin and concrete. Courtesy of Doug Aitken and 303 Gallery, photograph by Dakota Higgins]

How important is it to experience your works versus seeing pictures of them? We’re speaking of experience, of tactility, of embodiment, especially in provoking a return to the real and yet, for many people, the only way they will engage with your art is through static reproductions of them.

 

That’s such a relevant question right now, because everything is reproduced and constantly disseminated. What is a “real experience” is the question. And it’s not really something that I have an answer for. A lot of this talk gets us back to question of: What do we really retain? I think what we retain is the experience, not the physicality of the object, not something which is made of material. So, looking at where art can move in the future requires us reconsidering where and how we engage with it now. Presently, we have the gallery and museum and a few other templates—land art, street art. But what if we could say that art is everywhere? That every place has the possibility to be transformed, to create and to alter our awareness, our perception. That’s a daunting idea. But, at the same time, I think that is where we’re heading and I think there will eventually be a movement away from the material.

How important is it to experience your works versus seeing pictures of them? We’re speaking of experience, of tactility, of embodiment, especially in provoking a return to the real and yet, for many people, the only way they will engage with your art is through static reproductions of them.

 

That’s such a relevant question right now, because everything is reproduced and constantly disseminated. What is a “real experience” is the question. And it’s not really something that I have an answer for. A lot of this talk gets us back to question of: What do we really retain? I think what we retain is the experience, not the physicality of the object, not something which is made of material. So, looking at where art can move in the future requires us reconsidering where and how we engage with it now. Presently, we have the gallery and museum and a few other templates—land art, street art. But what if we could say that art is everywhere? That every place has the possibility to be transformed, to create and to alter our awareness, our perception. That’s a daunting idea. But, at the same time, I think that is where we’re heading and I think there will eventually be a movement away from the material.

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