Doug Aitken's 'Electric Earth' will shake the MOCA landscape

Doug Aitken settles in around a long dining table at his Venice studio, coddling a cup of hot herbal tea. The artist is having a rare down day just weeks before the opening of his exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Classical music flows through the sun-filled space, which feels surprisingly more like a cozy, two-bedroom apartment than a prolific ideas lab for contemporary art. 

He picks up a fuzzy-tipped drumstick and taps lightly on the African hardwood dining table that he made, which — surprise — doubles as a musical instrument and “social sculpture,” as he calls it. It’s airy-sounding at the head, deep and bass-y closer to the middle.

“It’s so that when language fails, sound can take over and you can communicate with someone in a different way,” he says, giving it a go.  

The non-verbal exchange that ensues is clear: Aitken is excited (boom, tap!), though perhaps a bit antsy (bop, bop) about his upcoming Museum of Contemporary Art show. But he’s clearly optimistic about it (bam, tap, boom!) and the creative juices are flowing.

“I’m kind of fascinated by the idea of transforming a museum,” Aitken says. “How can we see it as a kind of living, breathing space where the viewer feels empowered. Where it’s always evolving, always moving forward.”

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On Sept. 10, MOCA will premiere “Doug Aitken: Electric Earth,” the first North American museum survey of Aitken’s career, spanning nearly two decades. It includes seven large-scale video installations dating to 1997 as well as a recent live sound piece. The exhibition is particularly significant because Aitken’s multimedia and site-specific installations, in innovative architectural settings around the world, defy institutionalization nearly as much as he defies categorization.

Aitken, 48, is a landscape artist of sorts whose work explores the abstract, ephemeral terrain of the mind and our fragmented, collective digital consciousness. Motion, the fast flow of information and the passage of time are themes. He’s prone to cross-disciplinary “happenings,” often involving dozens of other artists, and his work has largely existed beyond physical walls. 

In 2009 Aitken drilled a nearly 700-foot-deep hole in the ground in Brumadinho, Brazil, for his “Sonic Pavilion,” in which underground microphones recorded the tectonic plates of the Earth shifting. He’s projected his multichannel, non-linear films, often depicting abstract imagery or restless individuals wandering aimlessly through barren urban landscapes, onto the exterior of Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Then he took to the rails. In 2013 Aitken led a caravan of artists and musicians on a three-week cross-country train odyssey, during which Beck, Patti Smith, Mark Bradford, Liz Glynn, William Eggleston, Ariel Pink and others created work aboard vintage train cars. Pop-up exhibitions and concerts took place in stops along the way.

“He totally reimagines what an exhibition can be,” says MOCA Director Philippe Vergne. “He’s an artist deeply interested in questions that need to be contemplated today. Questions of environment — of urban environments, political environments, natural environments. How do we deal with the inflation of information? How do you tell a story at a time when Hollywood and digital media are changing?”

But the big question remains: How will Aitken re-create, inside the Geffen, his fleeting happenings, immersive video works and location-specific installations in a chronological, contextual survey?

He won’t, he says. Instead, Aitken aims to reinvent the past installations for the space — and redesign the space too — so that the Geffen itself becomes another of his immersive artworks, a new landscape he calls “a film set of the mind.” Then he will infuse that landscape with surprises.

When viewers enter “Electric Earth,” they will experience sensory overload and disorientation, Aitken says, adding that he aims to disrupt familiar art-viewing patterns and jar viewers awake, narrowing the gap between them and the art. The lighting will be dark, the internal walls maze-like. Soundscapes will morph room to room.

“What if, when you walk into a museum, there’s no sense of time or location, no path that’s well-paved for you?” Aitken says, adding that he’s always been “restless” with traditional museums where art hangs on white walls in a gallery setting. “What if, instead, you the viewer can create your own narrative and author your own experience out of these encounters you come across?”

Transforming the 40,000-square-foot Geffen was one of the things that excited Aitken the most about “Electric Earth.” The cavernous exhibition space made a profound impression on him growing up in Redondo Beach.

“Since I was taking the bus down there as a teenager, it was always the space I reacted to most on the West Coast,” Aitken says. “Because it’s open and it’s like a laboratory, it’s not programmed. It doesn’t have a series of walls and floors — it feels almost free-range.”

On a recent visit to the Geffen, construction on the building had just begun, resulting in a 22-foot-wide crater in the floor surrounded by piles of dirt and rubble. That’s where Aitken’s new “Sonic Fountain II” will go. A smaller version debuted at New York’s 303 Gallery in 2013. The new piece will be filled with milky-white water and a nine-faucet fountain will flow from the ceiling. Underground microphones will live-broadcast the timed drips and drops.  

“It’s this minimalist, musical composition, very site-specific,” Aitken says.

Sound is so important to Aitken that MOCA worked with an acoustician to sculpt and direct sound waves in the wide-open Geffen, so that audible elements from each exhibit would bleed into one another organically, while also remaining somewhat contained.

“Doug almost works like an architect inside the Geffen,” Vergne says during a construction tour. “When you walk in, people will hear the hum of the exhibit. It’s extremely theatrical. The entire building is Doug’s stage.”

For “Song 1,” a video work that was projected onto the facade of the Hirshhorn in 2012, Aitken is building a 360-degree, double-sided screen that will appear to float in the center of the Geffen. Visitors can wander in, around and through the work.

“It’s based on this one song written in the 1930s. We recorded it over 50 times with different musicians, everything from ragtime piano to gospel choir,” Aitken says. “It’s interesting hearing this one song become so elastic. And it’ll sound so different in the Geffen.” 

For “migration (empire),” a 2008 multichannel video depicting wild animals that Aitken let loose in roadside motel rooms, he built sculptural billboards that will be lined up. Images of the animals — a deer nudging the mini fridge, a buffalo charging the furniture  — will jump from billboard to billboard.

Collaborating with Vergne, who’s organizing “Electric Earth,” played a role in Aitken’s decision to greenlight a midcareer survey at a museum. So did the idea of seeing his work realized in his hometown, where many of his friends, family and collaborators live. Many of them haven’t been able to trek to far-flung locations or inside private residencies to view his permanent installations, or they may have missed his temporary video installations in other cities, such as 2012’s “Altered Earth,” which played in an airplane hangar-like space in Arles, France. 

MOCA does own, and has exhibited, Aitken’s 1999 video installation “Electric Earth,” which earned him the International Prize that year at the Venice Biennale and which will be on view in the new show. His smaller light boxes and other sculptural works have been exhibited at Regen Projects gallery in L.A. But more typically, artgoers have only seen filmic offshoots of his projects, such as his 2015 documentary “Station to Station,” or photographs of his work online.

“My work has always existed elsewhere — Europe, New York — and not in Los Angeles,” Aitken says of his larger 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.”

One nook of the Geffen will feature video documentation of off-site installations in their natural habitats — shots of the glassed-in “Sonic Pavilion,” for instance, atop a hill in the Brazilian rainforest with the unnerving sound of the Earth rumbling and creaking. Other footage depicts Aitken’s own Venice residence, a psychedelic, sonic sculpture he calls “Acid Modernism.” Microphones embedded under the stairs allow visitors to play the house with their feet, as if it were an instrument. Other videos, complete artworks in their own right as opposed to documentation of offsite works, will play in the Geffen’s theater throughout the exhibition.

“Electric Earth,” which travels to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in May, also includes Aitken’s drawings, collages, photography, artist’s books and sculptures. For a  piece representing “Station to Station,” Aitken made three translucent totems, each filled with earth he collected from stops on the train trip. They’re vertical maps of the  journey.

Then there are the happenings. “Electric Earth” will feature artist talks, performances and musical events, including a lecture by artists Glynn and Aaron Koblin on time and a live musical act set within “migration (empire).”

But Aitken has a few more surprises up his sleeve. He’d like to stage on- and off-site happenings, he says, and incorporate spontaneous, nonchalant appearances at the Geffen by pop culture figures like Iggy Pop, Tilda Swinton or Chloe Sevigny, who appear in his films. Sound elements in certain exhibits might be switched up mid-exhibition; live musicians could be incorporated.

So don’t be surprised if you glimpse Sevigny wandering around the perimeter of the Geffen, seemingly lost as she appeared in Aitken’s “Black Mirror,” or a rural farm auctioneer from his video “these restless minds” aimlessly hurling numbers off his tongue while marching around, hooting and hollering. 

Because “Electric Earth” at MOCA will be nothing if not a surreal landscape of fragmentation. 

“Imagine it’s nighttime in a rough neighborhood in ancient Rome or Greece and the streets are like labyrinths — one corridor leads to another to another to another,” Aitken says of his vision for the show.

He unleashes one last “bam-bop-boom” on his sonic dining tabletop.

“I’m interested in creating different and experimental approaches to get to the idea you’re after. And certain ideas, you just have to do something that’s unorthodox.”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @DebVankin

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