Doug Aitken: losing touch in a digital world

Doug Aitken – All doors open (2018). Copyright Doug Aitken. Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York; Victoria Miro Gallery, London/Venice; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich

Over the course of the last three decades, Doug Aitken has effortlessly crisscrossed genres boundaries but I first encountered him in 2001 as a moving image artist. I was blown away by his elaborate video installation of reverse waterfalls on multiple screens and mirrors that covered the interior of the Serpentine Gallery. His latest work at the Victoria Miro Gallery in Wharf Road is equally engrossing.

Artists whose age grants them first hand experience of pre- and post-internet eras are in a privileged position and this is the intriguing aspect of his recent work. In the ground floor gallery you are confronted by All doors open, 2018, an alabaster-like tableau which includes an iphone poised on a table between a sleeping woman’s outstretched hand and that staple of classical art practice, a bowl of fruit. This electrifying metaphor of the links between modernity and the past prompts speculation on the impact of new technology on our collective psyche.

The “apple’ like the “friend” has been co-opted by Silicon Valley, their meanings remoulded to reassure us that the bright new world is no different from the old. The familiar fruit still-life reinforces our continuity to cultural tradition. We need to gather foodstuffs even if now the transaction is mediated over a device manufactured by a conglomerate deploying natural imagery as cover. We are encouraged to see this object as part of the natural world like the tempting apple of the Genesis myth. Aitken references the eternal question of how far we are drifting away from our natural selves. Whether this is damaging or liberating hangs in the air.

A narrative arc is created by the carefully choreographed lighting effects illuminating the sculpture from within. We begin with the clinically fashionable white iphone highlighted on the tabletop which spreads its luminosity to the surrounding figure and fruit bowl. The colours become brighter culminating in a frenzied red rippling through the tableau. This subsides and the phone is the last to fade into darkness. Are we reliant on being energised by the indestructible technology that is set to outlive us? The musical soundtrack of plainchant and bells hinting at a disappearing culture is a subtle counterpoint to the lighting and a refreshing relief from the ubiquitous electronic music that so many moving image artists default to.

Copyright Doug Aitken. Installation view of New Era, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

I also enjoyed Aitken’s spectacular 360 degree multi-screen installation at the recent group exhibition hosted by The Store X, The Vinyl Factory at 180, The Strand. New Era, 2018 also pitches mobile phone technology against nature. Microelectronic circuit boards mesmerise in kaleidoscopic sequences which give way to hypnotic seascapes much like the Victorian painters set steam trains in wooded landscapes. The loosening of human bonds with nature as technological innovation accelerates is a time-honoured theme for artists. Understanding its ramifications is a complex but vital endeavour for all of us.

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