The Twilight Zone

Left: Artist Doug Aitken and Schirn Kunsthalle director Max Hollein. Right: Curator Matthias Ulrich. (Photos: April Elizabeth Lamm)

THE PAY PHONE. Hardly is the word on paper and I cannot help checking to make sure that it is not one word, instead of two. It looks wrong. It’s so old, it feels brand new.

There are two Doug Aitken pay phones in Europe right now and there should be more. We could have monuments of disconnect like this in every city across the world. Right now there’s one in Zurich (at Eva Presenhuber) and one here in Frankfurt at the Schirn Kunsthalle, which is celebrating an extensive survey of the artist. Their glow ebbs and flows in response to how the people in the room move. twilight, he’s titled the piece. It’s his favorite time. “Twilight is when my brain begins to shut down,” I complain. Aitken revises the thought: “I don’t think it’s about shutting down but about the many different rhythms in a day.”

It’s the joy division of these rhythms that has been the subject of his research his whole life long. And getting out of one of them: “I went to southern Oaxaca, Mexico, recently to research a place without Internet.” Aitken began investigating these so-called “black world” zones in 1997. Feral capitalism in ten thousand square miles of restricted access in Namibia (Diamond Sky, 1997), or the current mental malaise of placelessness: “Never stagnate, never stop. Exchange, connect, move on,” Chloë Sevigny tells us in his 2011 film Black Mirror.

Left: Burnt Friedmann, musician Jaki Liebezeit, and Thomas Bayrle. Right: Dealer Victoria Miro. (Photo: Alexander Paul Englert)

I arrive at Wednesday’s opening to find an acoustically soothing, pagan unearthing in the middle of the Schirn’s rotunda: Aitken’s Sonic Fountain II, blipping and blopping slowly, arrhythmically. I can hear director Max Hollein’s opening speech through the speakers nearby: “You give Doug Aitken all of the existent exhibitable space of the Schirn, and he responds with ‘I want more.’ ” Apparently his films will be shown in cinemas across town and at the airport baggage claim as well.

“What is Aitken’s work about?” Hollein asks, then responds: “The human condition in a transformative world.” I catch up with curator Matthias Ulrich at the end of a Juddlike sculpture, poking his head through the stenciled E-N-D while I peek through the R-U-N opposite. Jaki Liebezeit is schedule to perform after dinner, and I ask what that’s about. “The former Krautrock drummer, you know? From the band Can?” Oh my gato, I think, picking up on an expression Aitken learned in Mexico.

Talking to Aitken is like conversing with a disruptive popup Wikimusic window. Over dinner, he can barely hold back: “That’s a line from Iggy Pop.” And soon thereafter he’s caught me quoting Bob Dylan unawares. I ask him if he’s found it more difficult to be a man on the move—his Station to Station project finished its cross-country US tour last year and has now moved on to the Barbican in London—since the world knows about the fantastic house he built. (It’s a house that plays music. The tables, the stairs, like variable xylophones, according to a profile in the Times Magazine.) “What do you mean by that?” he asks. Hollein, across the table from us, laughs and explains: “She means the sexual gentrification of your personality.” LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne, sitting nearby, chimes in: “Location, location, location.” Vergne’s showing the luminous pay phone next year in Los Angeles.

Left: Artist Doug Aitken and LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne. Right: Dealer Johann König, artist Alicja Kwade, and Frankfurt cultural minister Felix Semmelroth. (Photo: Alexander Paul Englert)

The table is cramped, the food delicate and down-to-earth, a fancy corn chowder and ceviche piled with French fries. We are elbow to elbow, and when Doug orders vegetarian, it sparks a dialogue about the beaver in the bathtub in his film Migration (Empire). Artist Alicja Kwade, sitting to his right, says, “My uncle once killed a beaver and ate it.” We grimace. “Oh don’t worry. There was an overpopulation problem in the forests of Poland. He’s not a monster or anything!” Conversation turns to Aitken’s performance involving farm auctioneers, a work we all love but that hasn’t made it to the Schirn, and a place called Farmville in Virginia. “Oh I’m always repeating myself. You know, when my father died, I found some twenty copies of Ulysses under the bed, all of which had copious notes from different times in his life.” It’s not surprising that the son would make traveling his life theme. It also makes me wonder if his sculpture END/RUN (timeline) upstairs has anything to do with Finnegans Wake. “Let us leave theories there and return to here’s hear.” (That’s James Joyce, of course, not me.)

I ask Vergne if he’d flown in just for the opening. Yes. Others who’d done the same: representatives of Aitken’s galleries Victoria Miro, 303’s Cristian Alexa and Erika Weiss, and Regen Projects’s Jennifer Loh. (Eva Presenhuber was at the Schirn early the following morning.) Talk about presence.

The night ends, as nights are wont to do in Frankfurt, with a happy dozen or so for last drinks at the Mona Lisa. I ask Weiss about her schedule, a gallerista’s quotidian migrations. “I landed today, slept for twenty minutes before hopping on a train to Mannheim to see Kwade’s show, Aitken tonight and Katharina Grosse tomorrow in Wiesbaden, then back to New York for a day, then to Venice via Berlin, on to Moscow so that I can get to . . . ” and here she takes a breath, “ . . . visit some old churches in Armenia.”

“Anything longer than a day is too much time.” Sevigny’s quote wafts through my mind as I head back to the hotel for some (here stealing an Aitken title) 99-cent dreams.

Left: Collector Isabel Zumtobel. (Photo: April Elizabeth Lamm) Right: Staedelschule rector Philippe Pirotte (left) and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich (right). (Photo: Alexander Paul Englert)