There isn’t a cultural space in Sydney or NSW that would have chosen to shut during the past 19 months. But if there is a silver lining for the Museum of Contemporary Art, it’s that its upcoming exhibition seems almost custom-made to welcome back visitors after a period of enforced isolation.
New Era is a survey of internationally acclaimed, Los Angeles-based contemporary artist Doug Aitken, curated by the MCA’s outgoing chief curator Rachel Kent as part of the 2021/2022 Sydney International Art Series.
Originally scheduled to open in October 2020, the ticketed exhibition has been postponed for 12 months, but now feels more relevant than ever.
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“We have been collectively through this incredibly challenging time, and within that time we’ve had to get used to the idea of being restricted, how we communicate being restricted,” Aitken says over Zoom from his home in Venice Beach, California. “I’d like to see this exhibition as this open space you can fall into – different stories, different narratives, different experiences – that are at the core of the works.”
Aitken’s work has been exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Serpentine Galleries in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But he also regularly takes his practice outside the four walls of a gallery, creating what he refers to as “interventions” within the natural landscape and underneath the ocean’s surface (Aitken is a keen surfer).
The multi-award-winning artist’s work ranges from installations to photographs, objects and vast, immersive multi-screen environments, and is intended to transport viewers to other worlds and realms.
For New Era Aitken worked closely with Kent on a large-scale exhibition, spanning 25 years of his career, that has been tailored to Sydney and the MCA itself.
“After this period of time we’ve been through, we want different things from art and culture – perhaps a wider range of how we see art. Maybe it’s not just on the walls as an object, but something fluid and changing,” Aitken tells Broadsheet. “We’re really looking at the architecture of the MCA. I wanted to find a way to activate it so it wasn’t passive but stimulating and coming to life in different ways.”
Aitken references his 2013 work Sonic Fountain II, a key part of the MCA exhibition. It resembles a large lunar landscape within which a vast circular crater of milky water arises from the gallery floor. Meanwhile, a series of grid-like pipes in the ceiling controls drips, sploshes and ever-increasing jets of water that hit the pool below, slowly getting louder and louder until the noise resembles a drum solo. Kent says it is one of her “all-time favourite artworks, Doug or not”.
Another work Aitken has chosen with Sydneysiders in mind is his 2016 Underwater Pavilions, which reflects his ongoing interest in the ocean and marine conservation. A series of sculptural objects, or “underwater pavilions”, lies submerged in the Gulf of Catalina off the coast of Los Angeles, and while people can dive down and see the pavilions in California, here they’re presented as a large three-screen installation. The works question the definition of art and how we engage with it.
“I was thinking about Sydney Harbour when I included that piece; you have this incredible harbour and continually changing tides,” he says.
Other highlights include migration (empire), a three-channel video installation Aitken began in 2007 during a series of road trips across the US, where he stayed in derivative US motels and replaced humans with wild animals – American bison, horses and owls – literally putting them into the rooms and filming them as they interacted with the space.
The work that lends its name to the exhibition itself, NEW ERA, is a large, immersive mirrored multi-screen installation that tells visitors the story of Martin Cooper, the 89-year-old engineer who built the first mobile phone and made the first mobile call in history.
“Themes of movement, transition, alienation and connection permeate through the work, and I find this particularly pertinent for today’s world and all the things we face in a post-Covid era,” Kent tells Broadsheet, noting Aitken’s works regularly feature light and reflection, nature, ocean and immersion alongside sound, repetition and musicality.
Aitken says he’s observed a thirst for quality over quantity as society emerges from the pandemic and hopes New Era will allow people to stop and think about what really matters.
“Our lives have been disrupted, our patterns broken and we’ve been pushed into a situation that’s largely unknown,” he says. “Through any period of radical change there can be creativity, and to me it’s very important we look at this optimistically and as an opportunity to create a greater society and a more profound culture. This period is about taking inventory in what really matters, where the depth lies and where the quality is.”
New Era opens at the MCA on October 20 and continues until February 2022. Adult tickets are $28.