Electric Earth: The Modern Narrative of Doug Aitken at MOCA

Sound and image bleed and fuse. The viewer sees, experiences and questions. Modern hyper-mobility and the relentlessness of human existence are served up in the guise of moving pictures. Such is the entropic landscape of the art works by Doug Aitken, which will be exhibited in a mid-career retrospective at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). The show will be the first North American museum survey of Aitken’s work and will include seven large-scale video installations, a recent live sound piece and several cross-disciplinary, multimedia artworks that, in typical Aitken fashion, defy acute categorization.

Doug Aitken, Black Mirror, 2011 - installation at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2015. Photo by Norbert Miguletz

For over twenty years, Aitken has misaligned our perception of locality and representation. His works, which include films, musical explorations, architectural sculptures, collages, drawings, photographs, graphic design, publications, architectural works and cultural happenings, are at once optimistic, brutal and frenetic. An overwhelming sense of social atrophy belies any cozy familiarity. As Aitken states, his oeuvre “speaks of uninhabited places, ruins, remains of a place where time seems to possess a different pace”. Aitken imbues his works with intentional discomfort, a measure rooted in the need to explore his thematic interest in human, urban, architectural and environmental decay. The 2009 outdoor installation titled Sonic Pavilion, in which Aitken dug a 700-foot-deep hole in the Brazilian rainforest in order to record the imperceptible sound of tectonic plates shifting, was a sophisticated yet subtle effort to disrupt listeners’ surefootedness. The micro-noises and reverberations were powerful, unsettling reminders of a constant transference taking place not only in nature, but within ourselves.

This vulnerability of the social and individual condition, as well as the theme of post-industrial abandonment, punctuate Aitken’s work. He is enthralled by the ephemeral, collective digital consciousness that characterizes our image-based contemporary (dis)order. These questions of alienation, abjection and shifts in contemporary existence are all addressed in pieces such as Station to Station (2013), Altered Earth (2012), Black Mirror (2011), and migration (empire), a 2008 multichannel video depicting wild animals devouring, nudging and frolicking in dated, lonely motel rooms across the nation. The surrealist vignettes – one of which sees a horse standing near a television playing a video of another horse running wild, and another an unruly buffalo boxing with the bedspread and accent lamps – are, as Aitken explains “almost like a survey of the landscape…It’s a cinematic portrayal of an idea that’s somewhat fictional, futuristic, yet set within our current reality”.

Doug Aitken, Altered Earth, 2012 - installation at La Grande Halle, Arles, France, 2012

A Los Angeles native, Aitken is pleased to be able to present his work to a more local audience than other installations have allowed; he has shown works internationally at venues including a disused warehouse in Arles, France, and the Venice Biennale, but his exhibition at MOCA, within the architecturally cavernous 40,000SF Geffen Contemporary, is on his own turf. “My work has always existed elsewhere – Europe, New York – and not in Los Angeles”, Aitken says of his larger-scale pieces. “So to have this period of time to be able to share them and show them from this landscape that I live in and with this community that I feel so close to, I’m really grateful”. The exhibition will intentionally reinvent past installations for the museum so that the Geffen itself evolves into another of Aitken’s immersive artworks that he calls “a film set of the mind”.  The exhibition, like Aitken’s work itself, will surely be an unorthodox narrative – be prepared to act outside of your own preconceptions and to author your own experience. “How can we see [the museum] as a kind of living, breathing space where the viewer feels empowered? Where it’s always evolving, always moving forward?”

Doug Aitken’s “Electric Earth” is on view September 10, 2016 – January 15, 2017 at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA before opening at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth in May 2017.


1.       “Doug Aitken’s ‘Electric Earth’ will shake up the MOCA landscape”, by Deborah Vankin, The Los Angeles Times, 26 August 2016 (online)

2.       “It’s Colossal! It’s Stupendous! It’s Doug Aitken!”, by Ken Johnson, The New York Times, 31 August 2016 (online) and 4 September 2016 (print)

3.       “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth”, moca.org