The COVID-19 era pockmarked our past and, sadly, continues to leave its detrimental imprint on our lives. That inescapable fact is also clear to artists across the disciplinary and stylistic spectrum. It may take on a nuanced guise that comes through in the creative end product or simply be put out there in stark and in-your-face fashion. Doug Aitken largely opts for the latter mode of expression, and that comes across powerfully in his “Flags and Debris” exhibition currently on show at the Israel Museum.
Aitken is a Californian artist with an eclectic oeuvre that takes in photography, print media, sculpture, and architectural interventions, narrative films, sound, single-channel and multichannel video works, installations and live performance. Quite a few of those genres filter through the fabric of a striking video work in Jerusalem called “Flags and Debris: Choreography in the Desolate City.”
The setting for the video work is Los Angeles. However, with its almost entirely deserted streets and other public spaces, it could probably be any of dozens of cities across North America, if not the world. This was lockdown time, and the locations Aitken chose impart a feral sense of the apocalyptic. However, as is normally the case with the American artist, there are plenty of undercurrents bubbling under the aesthetic exterior.
“Doug Aitken works in so many areas. It is quite incredible,” comments curator Orly Rabi. “And he generally engages in giant productions.”
There’s no missing that factor in the three-part video creation, as we catch figures swathed in all kinds of flapping fabrics gyrating, dervish-like, seemingly consumed by unbridled passion, but also more gracefully in free-flowing sinuous movements.
The spots he shoots appear utterly devoid of human warmth or, indeed, any sense of humanity. That, presumably, is a reflection of the woeful social distancing, self-incarceration state of affairs in 2020. But therein also lies an oxymoronic counterbalance to the particularly intimate preliminaries for the film.
How does Aitken work?
AITKEN WORKS with all kinds of substances but appears to have a penchant for fabrics. That enabled him to recover from the initial shock we all underwent as the world closed in around us, and he soon got down to business, using anything he could lay his nimble hands on, in his own backyard. Seeking sources of inspiration without the benefit of the outside world, he turned clothes and other fabrics he found into works of collage.
You catch a bunch of actual physical exemplars of that work in the hall before you get to the room with the giant screens. From afar, the cloth-based montages exude a sense of uniformity, but as you draw closer, you begin to notice the individual elements and appreciate the heterogeneous nature of the component parts.
Rabi says that Aitken has been there and done that before. “A few years ago, he created a sculpture made of mirrors and stone, and he submerged it in the sea, off the coast of California. People dived in and swam through it, and ocean was reflected in the sculpture.” Sounds totally mesmerizing.
In 2019, Aitken’s New Horizon work also ventured out into the elements. It comprised a 30-meter hot-air balloon made of silvery reflective material, like a giant floating mirror wafting its way across the skies of New England.
At the time, Aitken noted that historically, art is generally perceived as something that is passive, which we observe and interpret. “To me, life is experience,” he said, “and art should be experience also. I love the idea that someone can see this [hot-air balloon] just out of the corner of their eye.”
You are not going to see his outsized textile collages out of the corner of your eye. They are far too big to be caught by chance. But the details require a little more effort. Cloistered at home, Aitken seems to have rummaged through bits and pieces of fabric he had lying around and, with his keen sense of design and aesthetics, compiled collages that are far more than the sum of their individual parts.THERE IS also the matter of the texts he features in his material mixes.
One, for example, has the word “Nowhere” repeated six times across the length of the fabric, with “Somewhere” in the middle. The letters take in a variety of hues, allowing the viewer to consider the components. More strikingly, after a while the different background colors filter through to the front of your consciousness, and you inadvertently start to examine the composition of the words. You may begin to split perfectly acceptable commonplace words into unexpected syllabic sections, which offers an opportunity to analyze and review the normal meaning. “Nowhere,” for example, could read as “no” and “where.” That’s to be expected, but how about “now and “here”? That puts a whole different interpretive complexion on things. After all, art is supposed to make us think, isn’t it?
“I think the way the words are laid out in this work reflects some kind of sense of losing your way, some kind of disorientation he hadn’t experienced previously,” Rabi posits.
Over the past couple of years or so, I have been told by many artists that being restricted to their own four walls forced them to take a closer and more prolonged look at the stuff they have on hand on an everyday basis instead of flitting hither and thither in search of inspiration. Aitken certainly adopted a micro view of his surroundings and embarked on a painstaking process of meticulous effort. The attention to detail, the stillness of body and spirit required to produce work of such punctilious precision – planning the composition, dying the cloth, cutting, sewing – were a result of being secluded and looking inward.
On a general note, it should be interesting to see how the arts world pans out in the years to come and whether any perceived pattern can possibly be traced back to the time of the imposed coronavirus strictures.
In Aitken’s case, being shut up at home must have been a bigger shock to the system than for most of us. Almost his entire body of work converses with the great outdoors.
“That is in contrast with his whole creative process,” says Rabi. “He had to withdraw into himself and start looking for the basics of his art inside, at home, in his garage – discarded materials and old clothes and that sort of thing. It’s a little like the art movement in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, when they used readily available materials.”
Rabi says it was to be a completely new departure for the 54-year-old Californian. “He began to make this patchwork of blankets which, I think, remind one of posters or banners.” One naturally also thinks of a certain Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement.
“Using texts in American art has all sorts of contexts and stops along the way,” Rabi continues. “There are people like [77-year-old collagist and conceptual artist] Barbara Kruger and the incorporation of text.” You could add the name of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein to that list, too.
The curator reads a degree of distress or, at the very least, the challenge of having to cope with the trying circumstances of the past two years into the current Israel Museum display. “I think these works with texts are the result of a particular emotional state, or different frame of mind, vis-à-vis COVID-19.”
But they do say you can’t keep a good man down for long, and Aitken eventually found his way out of the house and into the largely deserted expanses of Los Angeles.
“He asked all these questions about where the world was heading and how to go back into the world, if at all,” says Rabi. “Presenting those issues out in the public domain is very Doug Aitken.”
The upshot of the latter is the aptly named “Flags and Debris: Choreography in the Desolate City” video work. It is a gripping and chilling creation, with an abundance of counterpoint and seeming flash points and messages worked into the footage.
Aitken enlisted the help of members of LA Dance Project for the venture to put his idea into graphic emotive and compelling practice. The choreographed elements, set against the starkest of man-made urban backdrops, are interspersed with textual input that echoes the patchwork hangings and conveys political stands.
Ecological matters clearly come into view, both in terms of the actual wording and the juxtaposition of the detritus of Western consumerism and materialism alongside Mother Nature’s offerings.
Diametric contrast appears at various junctures, such as slow-moving solitary figures clad in featureless black cloth set against motorized behemoths as the trucks roar past, headlights piercing the dark and casting shadows. And there are sterile, abandoned industrial spaces, complete with discarded implements and strangely dormant machinery, which provide an unlikely stage for the dancers to do their artistic thing.
Yes, there is a sense of fluidity to the choreography, but there are also signs of conflict, desperate struggling and bewilderment in their gestures and gesticulatory mannerisms.
Above all, this is high-quality art that packs sensorial, sensual and emotional punch. And you can sit back and relax, and enjoy the sumptuous aesthetic mix.
I wondered whether the video work may be a bit too much for museum visitors of tender years. Apparently not. “We have families coming here with small children, and children have started dancing here in front of the screens,” Rabi laughs.
The exhibition was a long time in the works, in no small part due to the trying circumstances of the past couple of years, but Rabi believes that Aitken’s pandemic era-produced display may leave us with something positive to hold on to. “I hope this generates discourse and allows us to talk about our experiences, our feelings and what we have been through.” Here’s hoping.
“Flags and Debris” closes on December 31. For more information: www.imj.org.il/en/exhibitions/doug-aitken-flags-and-debris