Interview by Alexandra May
Utilizing a wide array of artistic approaches, Doug Aitken's immersive works lead us into a world where time, space, and memory are fluid concepts. His work has been featured in exhibitions around the world, in such institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Vienna Secession, the Serpentine Gallery in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Aitken earned the International Prize at the Venice Biennale for the installation electric earth, the 2012 Nam June Paik Art Center Prize, and the 2013 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award: Visual Arts.
Alexandra May (AM): I just want to start off asking, why did you want to do a project in Detroit?
Doug Aitken (DA): Well, I think it grew very organically. I was in Detroit a couple of years ago, giving a talk at the arts school [College for Creative Studies], and it really just became a conversation. We gave a talk, we had some drinks... I was with some artists and people in the city, and it became this... yeah, I think, a very organic thread. That brings forth the question: how do you start a project? I think in a situation like this, because I don't live in Detroit and I'm not that familiar with what's there, I proposed the idea that maybe we start looking at locations, start looking at places and I could just try to educate myself as quickly and as deeply as possible. So I think that was the first step.
AM: So what inspired you about the location you ended up choosing? How did you choose that particular location?
DA: It was very interesting because initially the sites we were looking at were, to my view, quite cliché. They were the kind of rusted, abandoned warehouse, the graffitied space, the dilapidated architecture that I think in some ways has become almost an overexposed view of the city. And I was very interested in finding something different. After about four or five months of looking, we happened upon the bank building in downtown.
There were a few things that really struck me just immediately about it: the notion that this was not outside of the city in a field or empty neighborhood, but it was right in the core of downtown. It was also a space that you could imagine people have passed by thousands of times without ever thinking about it, and definitely without ever going inside. So the idea that you had something that was right in the core of the urban heartbeat—and at the same time had no outside access—to me was very compelling. I think once we started looking around at the space itself and its qualities, it was as if it were cryogenically frozen in time. And I found that so fascinating, that you could work with this architecture that was from I think 1901 or 1902, yet it had had so little access in contemporary times. So to work with that, and to compose with that architecture and the waveforms of history that it carried, was just really interesting.
AM: Could you just describe for me the installation Mirage Detroit, for the readers?
DA: Mirage is an installation—it's a sculpture in the form of a suburban American house. The form of the work references the ramp-style suburbia, the kind that we find sprawling through the landscape in a repetitious way. I was very interested in the kind of architecture that you don't see. I was interested in banality, interested in a kind of house, home, architecture that covers the landscape that in a way we cease to see, because we've seen it so much. And I wanted to isolate a piece of that and rebuild it without history, without belongings, without people living inside it.
Instead of building it out of stucco, sheetrock, and plywood, I wanted to construct it out of mirror. And I wanted to build the sculpture in a way where, from the outside, it was recognizable—it was familiar. It wasn't abstract in a way that most land art is... It wasn't just a piece of geometry, but instead it was something that had this gravitational pull through its familiarity.
So if you were to walk inside the work, there is a series of corridors and rooms with different dimensions, and all of these spaces are articulated differently. There are different angles of mirror—different aspect ratios and proportions. So essentially, once inside the installation, it becomes almost like a human-scale lens or a prism, and things change. You see yourself repeated hundreds of times, or from other angles; you see yourself vanish and disappear. You see the landscape outside of the work reflected and reflected, and coming to life in different ways. And that really led me to that question of: why Detroit, and why do something in an interior, inside this space?
AM: You had a similar installation in the desert, and now you've created this installation here in Detroit, in a bank building. What's different between the two installations? Is it the same experience? Are you trying to evoke the same experience for the viewer?
DA: Well, in many ways I saw them as completely different works. I had done Mirage out in the Mojave Desert, where it was installed on a desert hillside, looking into a suburbia that ended and then became just raw desert. That work was very much about the exterior landscape. It was, to me, very much about the changing and shifting light and weather. Seeing the work from sunrise or seeing it at nighttime, it would continuously transform, in a way—it was this Fata Morgana in the desert. And after doing that piece, I didn't really have a strong desire to create a work like it, or create the work again.
Later, as I started looking at the space in Detroit, I started to think that the idea of doing a piece like Mirage inside the space would be interesting, in an audacious way. Superimposing something which is this very 21st-Century volume inside the space which is 100 years older... and really looking at that idea of reflectivity: yeah, talking about reflectivity and letting the artwork really become what's around it, which in this case was this interior space with these classical columns, this elevated ceiling, and this marble floor. And then seeing how that can transform and play off of this very ordinary, everyday American architecture, and what that could trigger within the viewer...
AM: You've used reflective material in other projects such as your Underwater Pavilions. What draws you to this material, and how do you choose the material for a given project, because you work in so many different kinds...?
DA: Yeah, it all really came out of a restlessness or frustration with cinema, for me. The first piece I did that uses reflectivity was in, I think, 2002. I remember I was doing a film installation at the time, and with film it's very much about convincing the viewer to fall into the image, and then the film functions properly. But if you find yourself sitting in the theater and you're looking at a screen, you're restless, and you haven't immersed yourself in that, then it's a failure. And to do that, in a lot of ways, requires empathy. So what happens is the viewer has to watch something that they connect with, or are shocked by, or relate to, and that creates that suspension of disbelief where you fall into the screen and no longer look at the screen.
I remember thinking about this, and I was thinking: could it be possible to reverse this, and instead could the viewer become the subject? The viewer could become the subject of what they're watching. And in a sense, you're cutting out the narrative—you're deleting the narrative and creating a direct relationship with the viewer, and you're also creating something that can live in real-time. So that was my first interest in using reflections, or works that could have that quality. It is true—I find myself working in many different mediums and not really working in a very linear way at all. But sometimes you have languages that you've been working with, and you come back to them five years later or fifteen years later, and they could be used in different ways, to activate different qualities.
AM: We talked a little bit, now, about mediums, but can you talk about or describe your creative process in general, when you're approaching a new project?
DA: Well, I have a sip of this highly-caffeinated tea that I just sipped on. So that's the story implied, at least for a Tuesday morning. I think that, to me, creativity is not… there's no one way and there's no linear process. It's really something which is expansive and can move and travel at different speeds and different directions, almost akin to how a tree would grow, and you can have different branches and different root systems. I think in some ways, you have to recognize that art-making is also about time, and when you're making an artwork you are sculpting time in some ways, but also you're a slave to time. Because certain concepts might take five years, they might take ten years, and other projects take three hours. So another aspect of creativity for me, that I think about quite a bit, is how you can have these different time codes moving simultaneously.
And just like Mirage Detroit took a long time to create, it really took a community; it wasn't singular at all. One of the things that I really, really enjoyed about Detroit—and I feel so close to the city now—was that it's one of the rare cities where you find that things can really happen on a grass roots level. You don't have to contend with this bureaucracy and this hierarchy—but instead, through some great conversations and meeting some new people, things can happen. And with this project, it was really one move to the next, to the next, to the next... and the work itself grew a community around its creation, and I was very grateful for that.
I think in some ways, when we talk about the landscape of contemporary art, we are also talking about a series of systems, and these systems are almost like real estate at times. What I mean by that is, really, that you see the museum space, you see the gallery space, and you see someone struggling to have an exhibition for three months, and you see this idea of a space being turned around, over and over and over. And the curator is forced into a position where they have to reinvent the same space, in the same setting, differently, continuously.
At the same time, I think perhaps when we really look at where art can go, and will go, it will move beyond that. I think artworks will move into the landscape. They'll move into the urban landscape, the rural landscape, the natural landscape. They'll become material, and in equal parts they'll become de-material and digital. And it's an interesting time because, actually, I think it's a crossroads in terms of how we can see art now moving into the future, and be a part of that. One of those roads is the inheritance of history and the pathways of seeing, the traditional ways of seeing the traditional aesthetics, but I think in a lot of ways the future will be another road to the left of that, which is more open and expansive and experimental.
AM: What else do you think we all need to know about Mirage Detroit?
DA: I think there is one other thing, which is the fact that the ambition of the work was really to create a living artwork. I really wanted the work to change continuously, and not be something that the viewer sees once and consumes, and moves on... but goes back to the architecture, in the space itself. And within the space: when we decided to create this work in it, obviously it makes you think immediately about light and illumination, and how do you light something that's reflective? This led to a different path, which was really to look at the idea of: could the light become a composition? Could it become a continuously changing composition, so that it is not simply a room where it's illuminated, but instead could the light be white light, which changes color temperature from warm to cool, and sequences from one column to another, and it rises above, and it pushes down onto the gravel below?
I wanted this dynamic range in the composition. So a lot of my time, actually for about seven or eight days, we were inside the space alone just composing the light in a way where it could play without repeating itself. It could play continuously for months and months, maybe years without ever going into the same sequence. And that just goes back to the idea of: can we see art as something which is living in parallel with our lives, as opposed to something which is finished, and frozen, and consumable? So I wanted that space in Detroit to be something that you could go back to today and maybe a week later, and maybe there's a different perceptual quality each time.
AM: I've been three times and the experience is different each time.
AM: The first time I went, probably because it was the opening, I didn't get a sense of the light so much, and was just overwhelmed by the reflection of the crowd. But then when I visited the other two times, and I was alone with maybe only two other people in that enormous space, and I saw that all the windows were blacked out in the building, I really understood the whole light experience you're talking about: this composition you've created with the lighting and how it continually changes. It's really amazing.
DA: Thanks... Thanks for making it back there.
AM: Well, I keep bringing out-of-town guests and locals who haven't been... I will definitely keep going back.
DA: Oh, that's great. Yeah, I have to say, I'm so grateful to have this work there, and to have it living its life the way it is. I think it's important for all of us who are looking at where art can go, and to try to push the language... a project like this which is—in a sense—completely off the grid. So yeah, it's really interesting watching it unfold.
AM: We've been very grateful to have you come work in Detroit, and we hope maybe Detroit will be in your future again for some other project.
DA: I'd love that. It's interesting because Detroit is in my past too. I can't remember if I mentioned it when we met, but my entire family is from Detroit: everyone. What's really interesting is having a reason to go back there, and to go deeper into the city to learn more about it, to really excavate this mythology which is part of what I've heard my entire life, but never really experienced.
AM: Yeah, Detroit is a city with a rich history...
AM: Thank you very much for coming to Detroit, and thanks for speaking with me today.
DA: A pleasure...
AM: All right, thank you. Have a good day.
DA: Okay, talk soon. Bye-bye.
Feature portrait of Doug Aitken by Ami Sioux