From the DS Archive: Doug Aitken, Migration

Installation view: Regen Projects, Los Angeles 2009 Photography by Brian Forrest

Sometimes simplicity can be stunningly difficult. Doug Aitken‘s film Migration has an apparent enough premise: migrating animals occupy hotel rooms, bringing together the instinctive and unfamiliar aspects of travel. And Aitken uses pristine, focused images to realize this premise. Yet the effect is something more nuanced and confusing: migration becomes precariously noble, the virtual and the actual slip in and out of each other, and bittersweet anticipation pervades each scene.

Aitken, the SoCal native who is now as much an East Coast as West Coast artist, long ago dismissed the fugitive, homegrown approach of many video artists. He’s an expert audio-visual craftsman. His work reminds me of those feature filmmakers, Jane Campion or Ang Lee for instance, who gravitate toward provocative subject matter yet also toward sublime cinematography, dragging their viewers into a weird, subconscious battle between the need to understand and the desire to bask in beauty.

Aitken filmed Migration on location, in motels across the country. The film made its New York debut a year ago exactly, appearing on three industrial-sized screens at 303 Gallery, and then on the face of a building at the 55th Carnegie International. It took a year to travel – migrate – to Los Angeles. Now it’s projected in two places: on a screen inside Regen Projects‘ Almont Street gallery and, when the sun sets, as a two channel installation on two exterior walls of Regen’s Santa Monica Blvd building.

Installation view: Regen Projects II, Los Angeles Photography by Brian Forrest

I watched Migration inside first. Alone in the space, I felt like a solitary witness to everything on screen. When I first walked in, the camera was lingering on a motel bed with a pink spread and an aura of oldness – this motel probably didn’t belong to a national chain. The first creature on screen, a horse, couldn’t be recognized at first because rays of sunlight turned its profile into a shadowy structure. Then, once the shadow turns into a body, the film really began: animals waiting in empty, clean, but rudimentary rooms, sometimes watching themselves on television – a meta-narrative that, given the context, seems more factual than profound (watching one’s own species on TV is intricate to the traveling ritual). Every movement that happens in these rooms is restrained, like the horse hoof that beats against the carpet, or the mountain lion that wrestling a pillow but never puncturing its cotton skin. Running water, a motif in journey narratives, enters Aitken’s film only in spirit. The faucet filling bath, coffee dripping into pots, pool surfaces vacillates slightly – no rushing rivers puncture the stillness.

The creatures in Migration are going somewhere, there’s no doubt, but their destination must be unknown or foreboding because the hotel rooms they occupy seem more like psychological respites than physical resting points.

When I came back at night to view the outdoor incarnation of Migration, I was alone again. A steady stream of cars drove by, but only about six people walked in front of the gallery and fewer really looked at the dual projections playing on Regen’s walls. This inattentiveness surprised me at first, but, actually, outside, that line between provocation and beauty that Aitken straddles so nicely, fuzzed in favor of beauty. And pretty things on walls are second nature to the West Hollywood-Beverly Hills neighborhood Regen occupies.

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Installation view: Regen Projects, Los Angeles 2009 Photography by Brian Forrest

Seen inside the gallery, the best moments of Migration had to do with the strangeness of being alone, and watching creatures, also alone, use man-made conventions of comfort to satiate some some mysterious anxiety. Outside, the best moments had to do with distortion – like when a close-up of a door latch took over, when striped carpet looked like a candy-colored corn-field, or when a buffalo’s eye filled the walls so abstractly that it wasn’t clear what it was. These moments, I hoped, could interrupt passers-by, showing them that they didn’t intuitively understand what they saw.

Migration focuses on something that is intuitive, but isn’t understood, and that’s what makes it difficult. The urge to journey certainly may be familiar – most of us, if we haven’t felt it, know it exists – and yet, the tendency to view everything through a familiar lens is even stronger than the tendency to venture out. The animals in Aitken’s hotel rooms seem to willingly, maybe even sacrificially, accept a lifestyle that doesn’t belong to them, and the unfamiliar consequences of this makes Migration unsettling but also hopeful.