Doug Aitken’s Cities of Loss

LOS ANGELES — Around the halfway point of Doug Aitken’s three-channel video installation Flags and Debris (2021), a dancer cloaked in a black sheet — one of many such figures that haunt desolate areas of Los Angeles in the hypnotic 13-minute film — collapses to the ground. Agitated gestures mimic a cloth caught in a windstorm. The movement gives way to stillness, the sudden departure of an animating force.

The film, and the exhibition that features it at Regen Projects, also titled Flags and Debris, were conceived in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (All works except the film are from 2020.) The dancer’s covering is one of the “flags,” a large wall hanging adorned with text, which Aitken made from fabrics he found in his Los Angeles home while the city was on lockdown last spring. Seven tapestries, collaged of multicolored textile fragments, hang in the gallery’s main room (another one is opposite the front desk, flanked by plants).

The film took shape when Aitken envisioned the tapestries as shelter or protection that could be activated by the human body. Across the three large screens, the artist alternates between broad aerial views of the city and close-up views, such as storefronts, empty parking lots, or parts of the Los Angeles River. The dramatic dance performances, created in collaboration with the group LA Dance Project, are accompanied by a score that is, by turns, foreboding and airy.

Installation view of Doug Aitken: Flags and Debris at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, January 16 – March 13, 2021 (Photo: Evan Bedford, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

A dialectic of embodiment and absence informs the film and the exhibition as a whole, crystallized in the image of the dancer falling to the ground.

The dialectic bears directly on the conditions of the pandemic, in which absence — of activity, of bodies — implies presence: of those quarantined indoors, or of  those resting in morgues. Aitken has described the city’s desolation as liberating in the sense that he could film anywhere, unhindered by crowds or the usual permits, but loss and grief are embedded in the landscape.

Much of Aitken’s work, which is often site specific and experiential, is predicated on the relationship between the viewer and the artwork. Past installations like Mirage (2017–19), a house with a mirrored facade installed in various sites, or Underwater Pavilions (2016), mirrored pods submerged in the Pacific Ocean and open to swimmers, position the subject as both present and spectral — simultaneously outside and inside the work. These ambitious projects, and the perceptual and philosophical investigations the artist pursues, can come across as grandiose on paper, but his strength lies in his emphasis on sensory and phenomenal experience.

Installation view of Doug Aitken: Flags and Debris at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, January 16 – March 13, 2021 (Photo: Evan Bedford, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

Flags and Debris shifts focus from wonder to mourning, but even at its most somber Aitken coaxes lightness from his manipulations of light itself, as well as space and sound — all things immaterial.

The artist’s tendency toward physical and spiritual lightness is particularly eloquent in the exhibition’s largest tapestry, “When I Was Alive.” An abstracted horizon collaged from blue and white strips of fabric is overlaid with a quote from Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel (La invención de Morel):

When I was alive I awoke every day. My eyes snapped open, I listened and thought of where I was, the room, the town, the city. My body motionless, I breathed the air, adjusted to the light, absorbed the color. I merged with all that was around me, realizing there will be no next time, that each moment is unique, different from every other.

The text is poignant, especially in relation to 2020’s staggering death tolls, but by allowing the dead to speak it eases the weight of tragedy we carry in the living world. The past-life voice fleetingly meets us in the present.

Aside from “When I Was Alive” and “I Lost Track,” which quotes Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979), the texts are mostly fragmentary and ambiguous, signifying the expansion of virtual experience in 2020, as in “Data Mining” and “Digital Detox,” and the corresponding contraction of physical space, as in “Nowhere/Somewhere.”

Doug Aitken, “When I Was Alive” (2020), mixed fabrics, 103 x 184 x 3 inches (© Doug Aitken, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

The camouflage “We the People” is the one work that approaches didacticism. It gestures to political engagement, but doesn’t unpack the implications of rendering the phrase in camouflage at a time when both militarism and patriotism in the United States have been co-opted by the extreme right.

Two round light boxes in a side gallery return to the disembodied voices that speak in the wall hangings, and to the city that serves as the exhibition’s backdrop and inspiration. “Please do not includes us …” reads one, in small text over a panorama of Los Angeles at dusk, low- and mid-rise buildings sparkling in the center. Across from it, a nighttime view of downtown LA, its high rises glittering like a galaxy, reads “tell me why you stay away?” 

As a dialogue between the two cityscapes — the latter symbolizing corporate wealth and the former the precarious middle-class — the works could represent social tensions accompanying LA’s economic gaps. Yet the expansive vistas and the dazzling light against the darkness emphasize the otherworldly over the worldly; the voices seem to be outside of space and time. 

Installation view of Doug Aitken: Flags and Debris at Regen Projects, Los Angeles, January 16 – March 13, 2021 (Photo: Evan Bedford, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

While the light boxes and tapestries evoke absence and loss by way of virtual space and disembodied voices, the film immerses the audience in these themes.

In a Zoom conversation with the Metropolitan Museum’s director, Max Hollein, Aitken described the exhibition’s works as a bridge that could connect his feelings of anxiety and chaos during the pandemic with those of the viewer.

Through its atmospheric montages, its soundtrack, and its shifts in scale and speed, the film expands the passive act of viewing into a sensory experience that does not guide the viewer toward any specific conclusion or emotion, but offers breathing room for our own emotions — something like the mirrors in Mirage, which reflect rather than direct the viewer’s response.

One way Aitken universalizes loss is by avoiding markers of identity. The film never directly addresses the pandemic, nor the many sociopolitical issues that have exacerbated its effects in different communities. Race and gender are only glimpsed in shots of outstretched hands. The strategy risks diluting the film’s depth of feeling, or slipping into generalizations, but the cloaked dancers imbue it with a haunting pathos. Visually transformed into voids by their coverings, they embody the union of absence and presence that is central to death and mourning.

Doug Aitken, Flags and Debris(2021), video installation with three channels of video (color, sound), three projections, TRT: 13:20 minutes. Installation dimensions variable, approximately: 176 x 576 x 480 inches (© Doug Aitken, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

Los Angeles has a kind of pared-down grandeur in the artist’s hands. Aitken uses his deserted sites to draw attention to details that may otherwise go unnoticed: the way fabric settles on water, the reflection of a neon sign in a window, pavement glistening in moonlight. 

The more time spent with the show, the more its unfixed symbols, its meditative pace, and its mesmerizing visuals can become enveloping. Like so much of Aitken’s work, Flags and Debris exists not in isolation but in the presence of others.

Doug Aitken: Flags and Debris continues at Regen Projects (6750 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, California) through March 13.

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