New York

Doug Aitken

The desert is home to everything from tumbleweed, prairie dogs, and cactus to missile-testing grounds, atomic detonations, nuclear-waste storage, even as some people would have you believe, freeze-dried space aliens. On the one hand it exists in collective mythology as a no-man’s-land, a deterritorialized region of harsh extremes where nature reigns in its rawest form; on the other, it’s a “forbidden zone,” harboring a myriad of secrets in its sandy soil. Doug Aitken’s latest video installation, Diamond Sea, 1997, captures this contradictory nature of the desert by focusing on the Namib, a maximum-security, corporate-owned mining area in southwestern Africa. Aitken has said that he first became interested in the region when he looked at a map of Africa and saw a big blank spot. After a year’s worth of paperwork, he was granted access to film in the Namib or “diamond area 1” and “diamond area 2,” as it is known to its owners. Inside 75,000 square kilometers of restricted-access desert is one of the world’s largest computer-controlled diamond mines. Aitken’s camera maps the terrain of this region, focusing in on a ghost town, surveillance systems, barbed-wire maximum-security fences, helicopters that continuously prowl the sky on the lookout for intruders, conveyer belts, dump trucks, robotic arms, mounds and mounds of drifting sand, and sleek, black wild horses descended from those that swam ashore from the wreckage of a Portuguese freighter generations ago.

Buoyed by a sound track composed of the clatter of diamond mining and the eerie, forbidding music of such ambient noise artists as Aphex Twin, Oval, and gastr del sol, Aitken’s slick production denatures the world, turning it into a weightless realm, through which, with his camera as our surrogate eye, we move in fluid, boundless motion. He creates a state of viewing that is not unlike the ceaselessly blowing sands that sweep the desert.

In this, his second solo show in New York, Aitken presented Diamond Sea as a multimedia installation that transformed the video into an experiential event. A faintly illuminated desert backdrop hung on one wall of a completely darkened room, while the video itself was projected from laser-disc players on three walls and viewable on a monitor hanging from the fourth. The sound track blasted from speakers placed around the gallery. The viewer was surrounded by images, no longer looking at them so much as walking through them. In Cathouse, 1997, the second installation in the show, Aitken created an inhabitable space to house his videos. This time viewers had to walk through an enlarged version of a carpeted Kitty Kondo with televisions embedded in the walls that displayed three human beings engaged in repetitive and seemingly neurotic activities—a woman endlessly brushing her teeth, a boy flopping on a mattress, and an agitated man digging his fingernails into the arm of a chair. The third and final piece in the exhibition was a light and sound installation titled Moving, 1997, which featured sequentially blinking blue lights from an airstrip on the basement floor accompanied by a sound track recorded at LAX.

In the end, however, Cathouse and Moving came off as rather gimmicky—like a punchline in search of a joke. By contrast, Diamond Sea gave an age-old theme—the struggle between man and nature—a new kind of presence. Digging beneath the surface of the desert’s awesome beauty—the extraordinary golden light that gives every metal surface a mesmerizing shimmer—Aitken revealed a landscape shaped by conflict, one where man’s traces are quickly erased by shifting sands.

Sydney Pokorny