Art as a prism for ideas

Special to The Times

Artist Doug Aitken is doing everything he can to liberate the 21st century message of his new book from the relatively staid confines of a Gutenberg-era medium. “Broken Screen” -- subtitled “26 Conversations With Doug Aitken: Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative” -- is, after all, a group portrait of unruly creative mavericks disinterested in traditional narrative forms.

Not one for small talk, Aitken says: “We live in a temporal landscape where everything about our being is constantly in flux. In that sense, it’s a fraud that so many films and so much literature feels this necessity to create a conclusion, a beginning and an end. It denies a lot of the mystique of life, you know?”

To help spread the word about “Broken Screen” -- in suitably nonlinear fashion -- origami artist Bennett Arnstein works in the back room of Aitken’s Venice studio, folding loose pages from the book into a 4-foot polyhedron sculpture resembling a geodesic beach ball.

Upstairs, staffers at Doug Aitken Workshop finalize plans for a ‘60s-inspired, invitation-only “Happening” today at MAK Center Los Angeles.

And next to Aitken’s photo-crammed workspace, artist Kelly Sears gazes at a computer as she programs a “Broken Screen” animation piece to be presented, with the origami work and book-related neon sculptures, at the Gallery at Hermes’ “Doug Aitken: Broken Screen” exhibition, which continues through April 21.


“We’ve created kind of a film out of the actual book itself through motion graphics,” says Aitken, flipping to a photo-collage spread in the book. “If you go to a section like this, you’ll see all these images on screen start to break apart as other ones are revealed.”

Aitken got the idea for “Broken Screen” about four years ago when the globe-hopping video installation artist decided that the kinds of late-night conversations he enjoyed with colleagues in Europe and Japan might just be worth preserving. “You’d see these discussions with an artist or a friend going in a really interesting direction at, say, 1 in the morning in Vienna. Then you’d wake up the next morning and it’s vaporized. I thought, maybe this should be collected and become like a populist manuscript.”

From 2003 to 2005, Aitken interviewed architect Rem Koolhaas, opera and theater auteur Robert Wilson, performance artist Chris Burden, painter Ed Ruscha and photographer Richard Prince. He talked to avant-garde European installation artist Carsten Holler, found veteran movie title designer Pablo Ferro living in the San Fernando Valley, and tracked down experimental filmmakers including Robert Altman, Claire Denis, Werner Herzog, Bruce Conner, Mike Figgis and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The common bond? “When I looked around at my peer group, I recognized there wasn’t really a movement going on where everyone’s doing installation art or everyone’s painting,” Aitken says. “I tried to take a step back and say, ‘What is the thread that’s connecting what I view as the more progressive work?’ I felt it was this struggle with narrative.”

Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, sees a whole generation of film and video artists engaged in that struggle. “You’re seeing this focus now on people like Doug who are working in the time-based media,” he says, citing “Broken Screen” subjects Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Holler, Pierre Huyghe and Pipilotti Rist, who were also included at MOCA’s recent “Ecstacy: In and About Altered States” group exhibition.

Their work, Schimmel says, is “so fractured, so broken up that the normal sequencing of a narrative is blown apart, and instead it becomes something more visceral and experiential. These artists are dealing with states of experience which one could describe as dreamlike. They create a kind of immersive environment that creates an altered state of perception not based on the linearity of time.

“You understand their work intuitively without it telling you a story.”

Particularly interesting about Aitken, Schimmel says, “is that he has, in a sense, brought the kind of fracturing of time and space that had its beginnings in Cubism and applied it to the medium of film,” one of the bastions of traditional narrative.

Aitken is the first to credit earlier experiments in fragmented narrative.

“You look at Pablo Ferro, who’s so ingrained with the fabric of what we grew up on, image-wise, yet he’s totally anonymous. Most people don’t know he crafted these innovative titles for Kubrick, or the split screens he did for ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ in the ‘60s. I’m interested in Pablo’s work just as much as an Ed Ruscha painting. I’ve never seen a hierarchy in the arts. It’s all sort of a flat line to me, the flat line of stimulation.”

In his own work, he has spent the past decade filtering myriad sources of stimulation into a series of provocative video art installations.

Aitken, born in Redondo Beach and educated at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, focused early in his career on photography and sculpture before shifting attention to multi-screen video pieces, which have been widely exhibited in New York, Europe and Japan.

One eight-screen installation, “electric earth,” winner of the International Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale, follows a loner as he tries to fit into a barren Los Angeles landscape animated only by ATM machines and other remnants of modern civilization.

“The great question of our time is this notion of acceleration,” says Aitken, talking about the “electric earth” character’s effort to get in synch with his robotic surroundings. “Are we moving faster, or are our surroundings just moving faster? Do we harmonize or are we left behind, or are we constantly between the two?”

For “new skin” (2002) Aitken employed four intersecting screens to sculpt a video portrait of a woman in the midst of losing her eyesight. “The story moved around constantly, almost like a lotus blossom expanding, so that the piece wouldn’t dictate to the viewer when it began and finished,” he says. “You could walk in at a different time and pick up the story in a different place -- and feel like, more like an atmosphere, where you can come in at different points.”

Another piece, “interiors” (2002), starred OutKast musician Andre Benjamin and featured four seemingly unrelated narratives filmed in Mexico, Tokyo, a U.S. helicopter factory and an L.A. urban landscape. “There is one more story than there are screens, so the combinations always come out different,” Aitken says. “You see something that might not repeat in that same order until three hours later, but the vibe of the piece, the essence, is always there.”

Aitken’s first L.A. solo gallery show, presented last fall at Regen Projects, introduced “the moment,” an 11-channel video installation laid out in an S-pattern and accompanied by an audio track announcing, “I want to be every place.”

Gallery president Shaun Caley Regen says: “I think Doug is one of the foremost artists working in video today. He’s pushing these ideas of non-narrative, but also in sculpture and image-making. To do a book showing other people that he’s admired and feels close to dovetails nicely with his own work. I think Doug is very utopian, in a way, by trying to advance these themes and synthesize things in a different way.”

By design, “Broken Screen” juxtaposes in book form a montage of responses to a media-saturated environment in which “Once upon a time

“F. Scott Fitzgerald novels will always be great,” Aitken says, “but is there another way to get closer to the human experience, to the core of an idea, or an emotion, and to break the safety of the gaze?

“Many of the people in this book are trying to make more physical work in the sense of an environment you walk through, or by covering building surfaces or making installations.

“We’re kind of living in an image world now, and there are these evolutionary steps. It’s like we’ve been at sea for many years and we’re just starting to see this continent on the horizon. It’s a very electric moment.”


‘Doug Aitken: Broken Screen’

Where: The Gallery at Hermes,

434 N. Rodeo Drive, 3rd Floor, Beverly Hills

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays

Ends: April 21

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 278-6440