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Capturing change in an unstable world

Stewart Oksenhorn
Mark Fox/Aspen TImes Weekly
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The images in Doug Aitken: A Photographic Survey, which occupies both galleries of the Aspen Art Museum, were taken in Iceland, Alaska and Mexico City, as well as the artist’s native Los Angeles. They were made over a span of the last decade, a time Aitken calls “mostly a nomadic period.” For the most part, however, the large-scale photographs don’t reflect a span of either space or time. Instead, they convey a largely consistent idea that Aitken has been exploring, a reality that applies most everywhere and throughout time: change.”I’m looking to see where the individual fits in when society is changing rapidly,” said the 37-year-old Aitken, who splits his time between L.A. and New York. “We’re in a constant state of transition; we’re never the same person. Every day we’re evolving as humans. The common thread is a sense of dislocation, of transition and change.”And these are threads through our society, wherever you go. I’m looking at images from the Mojave Desert, and one from Africa, and I don’t notice the difference. They seem like they’re one world.”There is, of course, a frightening element to that absence of stability. Aitken captures that in his photographs: The images tend to focus on a single subject, conveying a sense of loneliness. The tones express twilight and nighttime, enhancing the spook factor. Several of the pieces – like “Soma,” a depiction of a gas station that mixes harsh lights with a deep darkness – read almost like a horror film; you’re expecting someone to jump into the frame. In “Ultraviolet,” the row of buses under intensely artificial light seem as if they could come to life. (In fact, Aitken’s reputation is primarily in multiscreen video installations; the Aspen show is the first museum exhibit of his photographs. Next month, the Aspen Art Museum will screen a series of three narrative movies, selected by Aitken, that have influenced his work.)

Aitken acknowledges that the idea that we are on constantly shifting ground can be nerve-wracking: “We’d like the security of a sense of place, the anchor of the material world to situate us,” he said. “But it’s a fallacy. We’re building up a house; our house is crumbling down. We’re comfortable one minute, restless the next.”But Aitken is not Steven King. His purpose, he says, is not to heighten our sense of alienation, but just to confront it. “At times it’s liberating, at times it’s frightening,” he said of how the world is in eternal flux. “I see the show as a positive thing, opening up these ideas that people keep very private or hidden, ideas of isolation, how you find yourself fitting into notions of society.”Aitken is also not Gregory Crewdson. Crewdson’s show at the Aspen Art Museum, in 2002, comprised photographs from his “Twilight” series, whose meticulous construction suggested a specific narrative. Aitken’s process and results are nearly the precise opposite: He works with scenes as he finds them, usually not even adding lighting.

Crewdson’s work, said Aitken, “is so studied and produced. I’m attracted to having a very light touch. They’re things you see, and you see in that image the potential to communicate something. It’s like walking – your body’s moving, your eye is seeing or cropping. We’re all personalizing the way we see the world through how we see – and what we don’t see. I like to go into a situation and exercise what’s there, rather than bring in my own voice.” Where Crewdson’s images condensed a lot of story into one frame, Aitken’s are designed with open ends. Action is implicit; there is the sense that something has happened and more will happen. But there is mystery, “the idea of not knowing what’s going to happen next,” said Aitken.”These images are about a continuum, as opposed to a frozen moment,” he continued. It’s not about trying to capture a story in a single image. Gregory is trying to make a whole film in one image, compressing everything. I’m trying to expand everything. They’re pretty reductive, taken down to the essence.”The filmmaker in Aitken is at work in the very structure of the exhibit. The downstairs gallery has been reconfigured from a rectangle to a hexagon. The effect, said Aitken, is “an experience that is more liberating for the viewer, so the images would move around you in a filmic way. I thought it’s important for anyone who walks in to create their own stories out of the show.”The images upstairs are taken mostly from the natural world. Even these, though, advance the theme of displacement. “Upstairs is more a sense of fragmentation, a breaking apart, kaleidoscopic views of man and nature,” said Aitken.

The show speaks softly, but carries some weight. Aitken’s photographs wake us from our usual emotional state, but with small gestures. They are not blockbusters, but akin to the small, art-house film that emphasizes mood and setting.”I think a lot of these images are very silent images,” he said. “They’re silent, exploring in-between spaces, moments that are in transition.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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