Artist Doug Aitken takes to the air, in a reflective mood
In “Electric Earth,” his 2016-17 survey exhibition at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the artist Doug Aitken created a dark funhouse of moving images that never quite seemed fixed in place. In its constant shifting of images, it created a bleakly enthralling dialogue around industrial decay and environmental despoilment, and the disaffections of a disconnected contemporary life mediated by technology.
You can think of “New Horizon,” his mobile project to be presented in July by the Trustees — the recently streamlined moniker of the Trustees of Reservations — as something of a remedy. It’s a mirror-sheen hot-air balloon traveling dozens of miles from one Trustees property to the next across Massachusetts. Wherever it touches down, it becomes the centerpiece for hopeful conversations and performances about, ideally, a more connected world. Fun? Sure. But it has both deeper ideas and loftier goals. We spoke with Aitken in his LA studio as the project gets ready to launch.
Q. I think there’s a sense that “New Horizon,” which is this big, literally shiny floating orb in the sky, is aimed at being family-friendly and fun. But I feel like there’s a lot more to it than that — about perception, about mutability, about what an artwork actually is.
A. Yeah, I think for myself and my friends who are involved in the project, it’s really a turbine of ideas and questions. It’s an attempt to create something as an art form that is time-based and fleeting — that idea that we can make something that is in motion, that is not fixed, not frozen and placed inside a museum or a gallery, it kind of opens things up in a very radical way.
Q. How do you mean?
A. I think the potency for the modern museum to do projects which are off the grid has really been diminished. Much of the art we see is programmed art — you know, it’s made to be seen in the fall of 2022 in this space. So as a result, much of the art we see is made to fit a schedule and an architecture.
With something like this, I thought a lot about how, yes, [with the various Trustees’ properties] you have these open spaces, and it sounds like [the Trustees are] looking to create something that’s in one of these spaces. And it was kind of haunting me: I felt dissatisfied with the idea of creating one sculpture that would be in one place. You go there, you see it, you consume it, and you leave.
I started thinking about it, and I thought: What if we eradicate that idea? What if we had an artwork that had no place? What if it had no representation? What if it wasn’t figurative, it wasn’t red, it had no image on it, or it wasn’t something narrative based — it was reflecting back something of your own experience, but in a very different way? What if it was a lens, a prism, that allowed you to see what you thought you knew afresh?
Q. That sounds like what any successful art should be striving to achieve.
A. Right! Like, what if it could ambush you, or surprise you? It was out of that nectar that I started thinking: Maybe we need to problem-solve it in a practical way. If it shouldn’t be in one place, how can it move?
Q. It struck me, looking at what the piece will eventually look like, that it simultaneously has this incredible presence, as a flying reflective orb, but also has almost no presence at all — how in the sky, it almost becomes invisible, a subtle rupture in visual experience that you have to be looking for to even see.
A. Well, yeah. I wanted to create a succession away from seeing something that is representation. That brings the idea of a mirror — this sculpture, mirror, balloon thing, that ideally will let you see the space around you like an optical device. It raises an idea: Can an artwork be living? Can it constantly be changing and transforming? Can we create art that is living with us, that we can discover and rediscover?
Q. When it’s sitting on the ground, though, it can run the danger of feeling fixed, like you said. What happens when it’s anchored?
A. The balloon we designed from scratch, but we also designed the gondola. The idea was to create a pneumatic studio. There are a series of conversations with people like Norman Foster about the future of the city, and the future of transportation, and as they kind of dissolve and bleed away into dusk, you start hearing minimal electronic music, these washes of sound. At that point, the balloon starts to glow and illuminate — it’s embedded with LED light. Which is generative. The patterns of light start feeding off the music, the frequencies.
So you have something that’s communal in a sense, because it’s being activated through language, through music. I love that idea — we can create this artwork that we’re constantly giving away.
Q. It sounds like a bit of a throwaway, but what do you mean with the title “New Horizon?”
A. That idea of a 21st-century landscape work, a search to see what we know afresh, and also to really kind of confront that. Because the space, the world we occupy now, is so radically different than even 30 years ago. You can’t imagine a kid now growing up without a screen, and living partly within that screen.
I was fascinated with this idea of coming into a world that has a very tenuous line between fiction and nonfiction, or screen life and non-screen life. And I think I’m very interested in a return to the real — creating artworks that activate and thrust you into a physical reality in a very different way.
Q. What’s it like to be up in the air in that thing?
A. The thing that really struck me was, when you’re in the air, you’re friction free. And what that creates is silence. When you’re in the air, you’re moving with the air. You make no sound. I think that is so strange, in our world, to have no white noise, to have no information off-gassing. And [it’s] really strange and liberating. There’s no steering wheel. In a world that is so controlled and mediated, you kind of want to break away and have this moment and say [expletive] it, we’re going to go somewhere without a roadmap.
DOUG AITKEN: NEW HORIZON
Presented by Trustees. At various locations, Massachusetts, July 12-28. Details: www.thetrustees.org/newhorizon