At Large  July 12, 2019  Jordan Riefe

Doug Aitken's Art is Blowing Up

Courtesy the artist

New Horizons rendering by Doug Aitken

Doug Aitken is blowing things up again, just another day in the career of an artist bent on transcending the confines of galleries and museums. When commissioned by the Hirshhorn Museum in 2012, his Song 1 landed not inside the structure but outside, playing in a continuous loop on its walls. This summer, he will be blowing up New Horizon, a balloon which will expand the definition of public art beginning July 12 at Long Point, Martha’s Vineyard. 

It so happens Long Point is a historical landmark under the preservation of the venerable Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts, the nation’s first environmental conservation nonprofit dating back 100 years. Not long ago they asked curator Pedro Alonzo about activating some of the landmarks in their charge. He tossed the idea to Aitken. 

Courtesy the Trustees

Long Point Wildlife Refuge, Martha's Vineyard, MA

“I was stuck. I didn't want to do something that's static,” recalls the artist. “I would love to find a way to do something that's fleeting, in motion, that will catch you by surprise, ambush you in a way. I thought what if we make a flying sculpture? Then we don’t need to choose a spot.” 

But they did choose a spot, in fact they chose seven, places like the Holmes Reservation in Plymouth, the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, and the historic 17th century-style Crane Estate in Ipswich. On the day of lift-off, New Horizon will be the backdrop for a discussion with artist Sarah Morris and architect Norman Foster on topics like the future of the city. Pairings in subsequent days will focus on subjects such as the changing role of media in the era of ‘fake news,’ and protecting privacy in an increasingly vulnerable digital world.

Courtesy the artist

New Horizons rendering by Doug Aitken

When night falls, the balloon, a stretched, through-the-looking-glass reflection of the landscape, will light up with shades and tones tuned to the sounds of acts like Destroyer, Kelsey Lu, Mac DeMarco, Chadwick Stokes, songwriter Julie Byrne and poet Aja Monet. For the finale at the Naumkeag house and gardens in Stockbridge, Bang on a Can All-Stars will play out Aitken’s “twenty-first century road trip” with In C, a potentially endless composition by Terry Riley.

Aitken has done this type of thing before, notably with 2013’s Station to Station, a 4,000-mile train ride across the U.S., marking stops with concerts and artwork by Beck, Giorgio Moroder, Liz Glynn, Urs Fischer and Kenneth Anger. At night, illumination panels outside the train carved an enigmatic streak of light across the open landscape.

“The majority of the art system falls under galleries and museums. And most of the art that's made is made to be inside architecture. It's made to be in a place,” he says of New Horizon and other projects that shift their environment. 

courtesy the artist

“If we ask where has art been and where can it go, what we see in the past is very passive. We walk into an architectural space, a beautiful gallery room, we see things, we judge them. Maybe there are other places it can go, other possibilities where, instead of looking and reacting to the color and the image and the form, maybe we're inside it, maybe we're living with it, maybe we're exploring it. Maybe we become one with that idea even for a temporary amount of time. Or maybe it’s something we come back to later and it's changed as we changed. Those ideas, for me, are very core to where I see art can go.”

In recent years, art has gone with Aitken to the reefs around Catalina Island where his submerged sculpture, Underwater Pavilions, three mirrored geodesic spheres, have been testifying to the tides since 2016. Earlier this year, Don’t Forget to Breathe occupied an abandoned storefront in Hollywood where three frosted glass figures, pulsing with multi-colored hues from within, disrupted commuters for 10 days in February. Right around the same time, a new iteration of Mirage, his life-sized mirror house, popped up in Gstaad in the Swiss Alps. 

His next gallery-defying work, Sonic Mountain takes a bow in September at the Donum Estate in Sonoma, California. A steel frame measuring 45 feet long, it consists of 365 mirrored metal chimes in three concentric circles. When the breeze drifts in from the nearby delta wetlands, Sonic Mountain’s song will resonate throughout the estate, serenading sculptures by artists like Keith Haring, Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama.

“In the afternoon I started to become aware of the trees blowing and the wind moving. I thought maybe we can use this, maybe the landscape itself can perform the artwork. And it can be something where every time I come to see it, it sounds different, it has a different quality to it,” Aitken recalls his early visits to the site. “It's very reflective, very mirrored. We're excited cause it's a kind of a gentle hill and there's a eucalyptus grove of tall trees. And I thought this could really be perfect for a piece like this.”

Courtesy the aritst

Sonic Mountain rendering by Doug Aitken

While he maintains a studio practice selling artworks through Regen Projects in Los Angeles and 303 Gallery in New York, Aitken’s oeuvre has increasingly involved immersing art in the real world. Like New Horizon and Sonic Mountain, the works leading up to them interrupt the environment, sparking a new appreciation for landscapes that might otherwise be ignored. 

“I'm interested in a return to the real. I'm not interested in escaping reality for something that’s synthetic, but actually going back in such a hard and unpredictable way where we really value what's around us again and see it completely fresh. Art has always held that roll of reflecting back on society, and allowed us to see something a little bit different or skewed as we are.”

About the Author

Jordan Riefe

Jordan Riefe has been covering the film business since the late 90s for outlets like Reuters,, and The Wrap. He wrote a movie that was produced in China in 2007. Riefe currently serves as West Coast theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter, while also covering art and culture for The Guardian, Cultured Magazine, LA Weekly and KCET Artbound.

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