A review of five works by Doug Aitken, Victoria Miro Gallery
Emerging from a busy Mayfair street into Doug Aitken’s constellation of five works currently on display at Victoria Miro is indeed like crossing a threshold whereby, once on the other side, time slows down and (at least initially) a peacefulness permeates the atmosphere. A sound component plays throughout the space; it is a linking feature that cascades over the installation, a rhythmic, organic soundtrack of dripping water, layered with mysterious echoes that pierce and hum. Suggestive of a lonely, empty cave, perhaps? Or maybe the belly of some lost, forgotten vessel, cold and crumbling at the bottom of the sea? The sounds are ambiguous yet familiar, and likely to conjure different mental imagery for different individuals. The installation claims one thing for certain, however; that the viewer be prompted to leave London behind at the front door, and enter an alternate ‘time-zone’.
The perpetual dripping and echoing produces a numbing effect; time decelerates, and moments are measured by the slow-motion sound of drops, as they collect, and fall, collect, and fall. In a relaxed state, the visitor is primed to be enchanted – and also disillusioned – by the five sculptures on display. In the centre of the first gallery is Eyes closed, wide awake (Sonic Fountain II), arguably the focal work in the show. The piece was fabricated for the site itself and functions as a pillar, but with the centre removed to display a diorama-sized interior of a cave. The top of the pillar tapers into forms suggestive of stalactites, while the bottom pillar rises to form small pools. Water drip, drip, drips from the top into the bottom, and acts as motion choreography to the continuous dripping sound that echoes through the space. The miniature cave is illuminated in icy, iridescent light that transfixes the gaze, and draws the attention to that mesmerizing, hypnotic drip. Geographically, caves are situated in the literal ‘underworld’ and are places in which we make closest physical contact with the core of the earth. They are related, therefore, to the symbolic heart, and their exploration a metaphoric search for meaning – a movement away from material and superficial reality in search of the truths of nature. Aitken’s cave, however, is man-made, and consequentially inadequate, hence the disillusionment. The persistent dripping continues to distort and measure time; the iridescence continues to enrapture our gaze; we are ready – ready to journey into the metaphoric cave and make contact with life’s deeper meaning – but this cave is synthetic, miniature, and toy-like. Our journey is halted, and we become painfully self-aware or our mortal reality, and our human limitations.
On opposing walls in the same gallery are two works from a latest series entitled New Land. These large wall-panels are pale-blue in colour, and are also bathed in balmy, cool light. Indeed, the surfaces appear as pseudo land-impressions, perhaps terrestrial, perhaps extraterrestrial; they exist between the organic and synthetic. Cratered and dimpled, the panels recall images generated from space exploration of the moon’s surface. The familiarity and ambiguity of the forms allows the viewer to apply a narrative of their choosing; Are these representations of ancient land formations, storing secrets of lost generations? Or perhaps they carry a dismal prediction for what the surface of our own Earth will look like in the indefinite future? Indeed, the title allows for many possible readings. Such as Eyes closed, wide awake (Sonic fountain II), this work aims to present something known, something earthly, something organic, but the gesture is phony and artificial. The synthetic material, plastic colour and perfect rectangular frames disillusion our romantic interpretation, and all existential contemplation the work initially prompted is diminished.
The soundtrack of dripping water and eerie echoes persists in the background. Time continues to saunter in a sedate fashion and we, the viewer, still partially transfixed, approach the final works in a dream-like state. The two remaining wall-based sculptures are found toward the back of the gallery, and each respectively occupies its own space, ensuring they cannot be experienced at the same time. The first of the two is the single word NOW; the second is the word END. The sculptures are large, relating to the size of the human body, and they are formed of carefully cut fragments of mirror and glass, geometrically and symmetrically arranged so that each letter acts as a kind of kaleidoscope, reflecting diamonds of lights onto the floor and walls that move as one changes position. Ah! Again we find ourselves in a delicately illuminated space; iridescence and reflection charm our visual senses and we are momentarily hypnotized once more. The words however are harsh and direct, sharp and loaded, and they firmly cement our thoughts in ‘reality’ again. NOW brings us directly back to the present moment, leaving us in painful self-awareness, while END confronts us with the unknown, the limitations of our mortal selves, and the existential crisis that is the inevitable end.
Aitken’s constellation of five works at Victoria Miro confronts the viewer with the tormenting realization that Time is the measure and monarch of all things. We are powerless to stop it; we are powerless to change it; and we are powerless to uncover the mysteries it conceals. A leaking tap with an incessant drip may skew our perception of Time, but has no impact on the passing of time itself. We may dig through landscapes and analyse specimens to learn more of civilizations passed, but ultimately in death our achievements and efforts in learning will be rendered futile. We may allow our minds to wander, to contemplate existence, reality and nature – we may quest for purpose, meaning, and truth – but ultimately in our mortal hearts we know our attempts to understand the universe are misguided and vain. Time is infinite; the self is finite; and that is what Aitken reminds us of.
Emma Rae Warburton
Emma Rae Warburton is a post-graduate student of curating contemporary art in London, UK. She is involved in independent curating projects with emerging artists in London, and also maintains a simple art practise as an artist. She is originally from Canada.
Images Courtesy of Emma Rae Warburton