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As much as I love art and what it does for me and other people, it’s not all that common for me to hit up a gallery opening, much less a big show like Doug Aitken’s Electric Earth at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA on September 9th. The atmosphere outside smelled wonderful from a variety of food trucks parked along the expanse of the outer western cement enclosure that nearly hides the entrance to the building despite its vastness, defusing the defensive nature of the wall with a welcoming circle of chow wagons. Visually and aurally it seemed less-than-promising, like an overdressed club party. The thing to do, it seemed, was to see and be seen on the impromptu dance floor under the thirty-foot partial ceiling of the parking lot walkway. My small party slipped inside the museum instead. At first glance, the expanse of the Geffen’s “blimp factory” floor plan looked like more of the same. Where once there’d been a huge curtain, a hanging diaphanous square in the shape of a cabin, now an enormous cylinder floated three feet off of the ground, displaying razor sharp video images. The center of this theatre-in-the-round would become a refuge for me later in the evening when my feet began to hurt.
I don’t have much history with installation art, especially of the video era. I think my first brush was Bill Viola at the Getty Center back when I first moved to LA. Frankly, I didn’t get it. It took me a while to warm up to this show, but a couple of hours later when the MOCA staff started gently but firmly corraling several thousand blissed out supplicants up the stairs and out the doors to the circle of taco trucks, I surreptitiously circled back to wander through a different part of the show.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first thing that stood out to me was the crowd’s behavior. I was in a long bare room with a single picnic table and two benches made of dirty-blonde, highly-polished wood. The table had a two-sided video screen sticking up out of its center that ran straight down the middle the entire length of the table. The video image was that of an elderly couple, sitting across from one another at a table, staring gently at us and at each other, as the house on the screen slowly fell to pieces, slowly and violently around them. I could sense a collective gasp in the room when a woman abruptly sat down on one of the benches to take a selfie, then remained there talking to a friend. Within minutes, there people were seated on the benches flanking both sides of the table, and I couldn’t tell if this was a violation of an artistic boundary or an intention of the artist’s, but I thought it was hilarious as the contrasting contexts of the work, the video within the work, and the space within which the work existed all seemed to compete with each other dynamically for tone.
The pieces used the floor space at the Geffen with intention, featuring long hallways, some almost pitch black, leading to various installations in the retrospective. Sound and video were immersive, both soothing and unsettling. My favorite image from the show was a pair of black horses running across a barren desert landscape just out of focus enough to make them appear as pure-black shadows, mere horse-shapes. Video projections varied in duration, from several minutes to sequences that seemed to last for hours. A favorite of mine was a sudden pounding drumbeat, much like the drum breaks in the work of Gastr del Sol, insane in intensity and arising suddenly seemingly out of nowhere.
Standing through my fifth or sixth or seventh installation led me back to the circle in the center. I slipped under the screen into the bright light as a hundred people stared past me at the screen that I’d just usurped from below, and as I took my seat I found myself greeted by a ten foot projection of my favorite actress, Tilda Swinton, staring back at me in all of her cool, alien elegance, mouthing the lyrics to a never-quite-coalescing Fifties doo-wop version of a song that played over and over and over again: I Only Have Eyes for You.
Dave Leon LCSW is the founder/director of Painted Brain and a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News