In fall 2013, artist Doug Aitken gathered dozens of friends, fellow artists and musicians for an unusual art project: a 4,000-mile cross-country train journey that would take them to 10 cities across the United States. At each stop they staged happenings, concerts and pop-up art installations — from performances by singer-songwriter Cat Power to a mirror-lined yurt by artist Urs Fischer outfitted with a gleaming white bed and disco ball.
The train harbored a recording studio, where Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore, Italian synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder and many other artists could lay down tracks. It also contained art-making space. In her sleeping-car studio, L.A.-based installation artist Liz Glynn created papier-mâché works inspired by the star maps of the cities the group had traveled through. Moreover, the train itself served as a work of art. Aitken covered its flanks in pulsing LED lights. At night, the train would transform into a moving light show.
"Station to Station," as the project was called, is now the subject of a film of the same name. Shot and directed by Aitken, a Los Angeles video and installation artist, the 70-minute picture chronicles the artists' journey across barren desert, lush bits of countryside and the industrial backsides of various American cities.
To tell this story, Aitken decided to do away with a traditional narrative in favor of a series of one-minute segments that capture slices of life along the way. This is a good thing. Despite what you may have read in "Eat, Pray Love," journeys are never tidy things. Discoveries made and life lessons learned rarely unfold in a pat three acts. Instead, they are messy. Moments of joy punctuate long stretches of boredom. Banal landscapes can occasionally be interrupted by a single sublime view. The transformative realizations often don't happen until much later, if at all.
In this regard, Aitken's film captures what it means to be on the road, where life is lived as a series of moments. We see a pair of flamenco dancers stomping out a beat between railroad cars, the singer Cold Cave recording a moody New Wave-ish song against a setting sun, an absolutely hypnotic scene in which a Kansas City marching band performs in a cavernous warehouse space — and fragments of the concerts and happenings that the artists held in the cities along the way.
But the format has its limitations too. Because each artist is allotted a minute — at most, two — it doesn't allow much for the way of profundity. There are glimpses of important figures, such as photographer William Eggleston and painter Ed Ruscha, but they're on screen too briefly to register in a meaningful way. Others deliver platitudes. "Creating is what moves me," reports one earnest young musician.
Artist Gary Indiana arrives like a bolt of energy in the middle of the film, discussing the nature of human behavior. "I'm extremely suspicious of normal people," he tells the camera matter-of-factly. "The only way to be normal in a society like this is to be complicit with things that are inhuman." But just as quickly, he's gone. Cut to another scene of another band playing a gig.
Much of the time, "Station to Station" feels less like a film than a very well-produced music video. There is scenery. There is music. There is the abstracted romance of life on road, complete with attractive young artists looking wistfully out of train windows. Its individual moments are quite seductive. But if there is a deeper meaning — of what it means to hit the rails in the 21st century, to peer into America's de-industrialized guts — it lies well beyond the scope of this film.
'Station to Station'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles