New York

Doug Aitken

Work for the attention-span impaired in all of us, Doug Aitken’s installation provoked the sort of fleeting engagement that characterizes watching television. This should come as no surprise since Aitken supports himself by producing and directing music videos and television ads. Presenting this so-called commercial work in a gallery would be a rather welcome development in the art world, but the problem here is that Aitken is too preoccupied with the notion that what he presents in that context must resemble, behave, or feel like Art. There should be nothing particularly embarrassing about finding creative success in the terms of popular culture—and if Aitken is considered a vanguard music video and television commercial maker within that context, more power to him—since that’s the true heart of this society.

So why didn’t he just exhibit unadulterated, unmanipulated versions of his MTV and commercial work? The thing is, such an approach would not guarantee this kind of work would be accepted in an art context, where a different range of esthetic criteria still apply, for better or worse. Probably for worse: people are still stubbornly seeking out a different kind of experience with art than with other kinds of cultural expressions, despite protestations to the contrary. Aitken has indeed attempted to create that different kind of experience, but he might have been better served by remaining faithful to the language of his original commercial product.

Aitken’s show included sound, video, and digitally generated photographic pieces. In the front gallery space, the video installation autumn, 1994, was comprised of three monitors that emitted images of a number of good-looking, hip, “Gen-X” youths meandering through cityscapes (a girl drives in a car through the streets of what is probably L.A.) and Southern California desert landscapes intercut with airplanes in flight, and other indicators of flux. The ambient sounds of Saint Etienne’s and the Aphex Twins’ music provided a kind of incidental, background soundtrack that seemed to reinforce the quality of perpetual aimlessness suggested by this video mélange of obscurely connected images that evoked the digital texture of televisual narrative.

Autumn is actually comprised of two overlapping, mutually informing elements: footage from two of his music videos, and then the narrative, which is derived from footage taken on the video-production site (a character observes her performance in a music video, and this self-reflexive activity points to Aitken’s layering of different narratives). In the back gallery space, Fury Eyes, 1994, juxtaposed various kinds of footage—Cindy Crawford’s exercise tape and Aitken’s video of a motorcycle racer—and a backdrop “desert-scene” photo from a Crawford’s video.

Somewhat ironically, Aitken indicates that the production of the Crawford video and the motorcycle escapade occurred in the same location (El Mirage and Palmdale International Raceway in the Southern California desert), and that the final product—the Crawford video—exists somewhere between “reality” and the “reality-effect,” and that the relationship between these two conditions is both arbitrary and constructed, which the medium makes even more explicit. Well, what else is new? Although Aitken seems to be making a rather concerted effort to deconstruct the narrative structure of his commercial visual work in order to construct art, in the end all we get is a kind of subcultural lifestyle representation: youths who transform their seemingly disengaged wanderings through life into a kind of hipness (or poststyle). We’ve seen this represented back to us innumerable times—in television, movies, music videos (undoubtedly some of Aitken’s) and magazines—and it’s not certain that Aitken’s rerepresentations of these lifestyles, and perhaps implicitly of himself, offer us greater insight.

Joshua Decter