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Doug Aitken
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Wikipedia About Doug Aitken

essay Doug Aitken, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

One could say that Doug Aitken is a child of the age of entropy. Born in 1968, he is part of a generation that has come of age in a world defined by the viral sprawl of suburban housing developments across the landscape and a parallel intensification of the information overload offered through the media. Working primarily in film and video, Aitken has taken a cartographic trajectory with his projects over the last few years, negotiating a path between the topography of the landscape and the electronic flows of the media. What becomes apparent when viewing the entirety of his filmic output is that the glacial power of entropy—the slow leakage of energy—lies at the heart of much of his work.

This can be seen most clearly in Diamond Sea (1997), which premiered simultaneously as a single-channel video in the 1997 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and as a multichannel video installation at New York’s 303 Gallery. The work is the result of the artist’s obsession with an area on the map of Namibia the size of California that bore the designation “Diamond Areas 1 and 2.” These highly profitable desert mining regions have been closed to the outside world since 1908, creating a hermetically sealed time capsule of sorts, unexposed to the gaze of ninety years of media culture. Fascinated by the kind of light he might find there, Aitken spent a year sorting through bureaucratic red tape before obtaining access to this part of Namibia. The result of about a month traveling around the area, his film documents a bizarrely alien territory populated by a wide array of exotic and highly sophisticated mining technology, shifting sand, and wild Portuguese horses—descendants of the equine survivors of a shipwreck.

As the artist himself has suggested, this was his Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog’s maniacally heroic 1982 film about hauling a riverboat over a small mountain). Like Herzog, Aitken was driven to this place by a blind faith. Once he arrived, he found an enormous negative space that had nothing tangible around which he could form a narrative. His camera nonetheless found its way to a series of highly automated, computer-controlled mining machines, abandoned corporate dormitories, surveillance helicopters, and the desert itself. These he brought together with both live sound recorded on location as well as the music of electronica and noise producers such as Aphex Twin, Gastr del Sol, and Oval. Providing a visual equivalent to the tradition of ambient music, Aitken takes a region completely cut off from the outside world and gives it the status of a subject. Quoting Vladimir Nabokov, artist Robert Smithson once suggested that “the future is but the obsolete in reverse.”1Diamond Sea shows us this mechanism at work by poetically documenting the dissipation of architectonic structures into their surroundings, depicting the future as a landscape littered with the detritus of entropic catastrophes.

  1. Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). Originally published in Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1966): 26–31.

Fogle, Douglas. “Doug Aitken.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


biography Doug Aitken, Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures Walker Art Center, 2000

Doug Aitken uses video and photography as artistic tools to investigate the global landscape. A member of the first generation raised on music videos, the artist engages the thrilling and seductive strategies of that entertainment medium to create art that is exceedingly pleasurable even as it raises questions of global displacement, disappearing landscapes, and the often overwhelming hyperkinesis of contemporary life. For Monsoon (1995), Aitken traveled to Jonestown, Guyana, to visit the site of the 1978 People’s Temple mass suicide, only to find that this historic place was being reclaimed by the rain forest that surrounds it. Let’s Entertain includes a three-monitor video installation, these restless minds (1998), which examines a different kind of geography and spectacle–the contemporary American landscape and the distinct poetry of the American auctioneer. Seated by escalators and standing in empty parking lots, the auctioneers call nameless lots to absent auction crowds. These scenes are intercut with images of highways, truck stops, oil wells, and radar installations, which seem to comment on our need to communicate and remain in motion as the nearly unintelligible linguistic somersaults of the auctioneers wash over us. The spinning, frenzied vortex of sound alludes to the overload of information that pervades contemporary society. Aitken seeks to “bring the viewer toward something a bit more intangible, providing… a sense of discovery and questioning.” He was awarded the International Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale for his installation Electric Earth (1999).

Doug Aitken biography from Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures, Walker Art Center, 2000.