New York

View of “Doug Aitken,” 2013. From left: Sunset (black), 2013; Sonic Fountain, 2013; 100 YRS, 2013.

View of “Doug Aitken,” 2013. From left: Sunset (black), 2013; Sonic Fountain, 2013; 100 YRS, 2013.

Doug Aitken

View of “Doug Aitken,” 2013. From left: Sunset (black), 2013; Sonic Fountain, 2013; 100 YRS, 2013.

Imagine that you are wandering through an old warehouse. It’s near the river in an ex-industrial zone; it might have been a taxi garage once. What’s that dripping sound? Why is it so musical? A hole has been gouged in the concrete floor. It is filled with milky water and has apparently been miked; a rig of pipes and spigots in the rafters is releasing timed drops into the pool. Amplified, they reverberate as if struck on a postapocalyptic xylophone. Concentric ripples shiver on the surface of the toxic-looking puddle and throw reflections onto the black ceiling, a synesthetic extension of the echoey soundscape.

Now imagine that you are wandering through an A-list Chelsea party. There’s a bubbling fountain on a plinth; chocolatey liquid spews endlessly over two-foot-high Plexiglas letters spelling ART. Cute. Spear your strawberry and hold it in the unctuous stream; pop it in your mouth. Choke. The key ingredient in this frothing goo is dirt.

Such, at least, were my fantasies of contextualization in Doug Aitken’s recent show. Sonic Fountain, 2013, comprises five underwater microphones, six speakers, and a computer that controls the water drops; measuring twelve feet across, the pool, and the pile of rubble from its excavation, dominated the darkened front gallery. Fountain (earth fountain), 2012—the ART piece—stood alone in a more brightly lit back room, while five sculptural text pieces rounded out the installation. In MORE (shattered pour), 2013, the greedy word is set out four-square, like Robert Indiana’s LOVE, in big wall-mounted letters studded with broken mirror. For Sunset (black), 2013, the words SUN and SET, carved from foam and arranged one atop the other, have been silk-screened with a black-and-white pattern that looks like Benday dots or pumice stone; lit from behind, the piece stood in a raw, hallway-like slot behind the wall, framed by a neatly chopped round opening that rhymed with the floor pool. 100 YRS, 2013, was set in a niche, too. Continuous across these numeral- and letter-shaped light boxes, a black-and-white photograph shows a leather-clad rocker onstage, adoring fans reaching toward him. Lastly, the LED-light piece NOT ENOUGH TIME IN THE DAY (lightbox), 2013, cycled through its memento-mori, multitasker phrase in black letters on a hotly lit white ground.

Aitken has long been interested in the mesmeric possibilities of images at advertising scale, as demonstrated in his monumental filmic projections on the facades of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC (Song 1, 2012), and the Museum of Modern Art and American Folk Art Museum in New York (Sleepwalkers, 2007). So it’s no surprise that, here, sylvan pool, desert sunset, and volcanic mud advertised their own faux sublimity. Nature is culture is artifice, and it all looks chic: The ambient flashing of NOT ENOUGH TIME IN THE DAY (lightbox) plays lightning to the rain of Sonic Fountain; all four elements are invoked; the pagan rock god and his acolytes perform their rite. Why shouldn’t such tropes of entropy and simulacrum, elegy and fetishism mix?

One reason is because, in the context of an actually broken building, the eerily precise pool could say something about industrial technologies and their near-seamless interface with natural decay. (This was in fact hinted at in a performance that took place at the show’s conclusion, in which Aitken destroyed the installation in advance of the forthcoming renovation of the space.) At a fancy party (or in a boutique or restaurant), the glossy sculptures could give up trying to speak about time’s passage and the longing for fulfillment, and simply do their job as cool decor. It must be amazing to sit in the artist’s Sonic Pavilion, 2009, at the Instituto de Arte Contemporânea in the rain forest of Inhotim, Brazil, and listen to the sound of tectonic activity captured by geomicrophones extended nearly a mile into the earth. In the vexed context of the gallery, however—erstwhile warehouse, discreet showroom, contemplative space—Aitken’s objects aspire to too much and do too little.

Frances Richard