Volume 78 / Number 20 - October 15 - 21, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower
East Side, Since 1933


Doug Aitken
Through November 1
303 Gallery
547 West 21st Street
(212) 255-1121; 303 gallery.com

Joshua Lutz
Through October 18
521-531 West 25th Street
(666) 230-0020; clampart.com

Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

A still from Doug Aitken’s video installation “Migration,” in which motel guests are North American animals emblematic of the American West.

Where the deer and the dispossessed play

East and West meet on the road to somewhere else

By Debra Jenks

There’s something strange going on at the Super 8 Motel. With the exception of an occasional truck passing on a distant highway, Doug Aitken’s video installation, “Migration,” is void of human presence. The guests have all grown fur and feathers.

Last year Aitken’s video “Sleepwalkers” was projected in 8 sections on MoMA’s exterior. It followed five fictional city dwellers (including characters played by Donald Sutherland, Tilda Swinton and Cat Power), on their nocturnal trips, in a montage of “broken narratives” having no distinct beginning or end. Viewers had to walk around the museum to see the piece in it’s entirely, thereby engaging in the same activity as the onscreen personas.

“Migration” is also currently part of “Life on Mars,” the Carnegie International that opened this past May in Pittsburg. Like “Sleepwalkers,” it’s projected on the museum’s façade. At 303 Gallery, Aitken uses three 15-foot screens that are made to resemble billboards and insinuate advertising’s imposition on the American landscape. Neon hotel signs drift across the screen and bring to mind the word paintings of Pop artist, Ed Ruscha, or his photographs in “Twentysix Gasoline Stations.” The hotels—most of which seem to be from a bygone era—serve as a symbol of migration, locating us in the temporary stay, and in a series of displacements. Nature seems out of place in a post-industrial world and vice versa.

The hotel patrons in “Migration” are North American animals, emblematic of the American West. The once endangered, buffalo and the coyote are staying at the Motel 6 or the derelict All Star Inn. Two white peacocks lounge on white linens. A beaver takes a bath in the tub, vigorously scrubbing behind his ears, and then sniffs a pot of coffee.

A deer stares cautiously at a set of antlers hung on the wall, and checks out the contents of a refrigerator. A rowdy cougar wrestles with a pillow and knocks over a lamp. A raccoon drinks water from a bathroom faucet. In another room the TV is on and we see the image of an eagle fly out of the screen and land on the bed. The bird turns to watch itself again on TV, as if looking in a mirror.

Aitken’s soundtrack adds to the sense of mystery and suspense, and in one scene is overlapped by the sound of a beating heart, elevating the urgency and distress of an animal stuck in a foreign space.

Foreign space and the ambiguous area between documentary and fiction imbue the work of Joshua Lutz as well. But here it’s the unfamiliar in our own back yard. Lutz’s 10-year project, “Meadowlands,” began as a search for Jimmy Hoffa (the Teamster boss who went missing in 1975) in the 32 miles of marshland between New York and New Jersey. It eventually developed into a story about the place itself, however, the facts are less important to Lutz, than the feeling these images convey. In his introduction to Lutz’s book, Robert Sullivan describes it as a place that separates New York City and “the rest of the United States.”

To Lutz, the Meadowlands are “a place that most people pass through and forget on their way to somewhere else.” Indeed, in one of the quintessential images, we see the blurred shape of a low-flying plane on its departure from Newark as it (literally) passes over the marshland’s fall foliage and a cell tower. In another image, the silver carcass of a jet liner rests among brown reeds and winter trees.

Industrial debris isn’t the only thing we find floating in the murk. Teetering on the edge of reality and supposition is the image of what appears to be a corpse facedown in a ditch. Another image shows a priest who looks lost, wandering in waist-high grasses like someone out of a Flannery O’Connor novel.

There are a number of stark rust-colored or icy landscapes with bridges and railroads, shot in an overcast grey light. The striking contrast of the Meadowlands as a desolate and neglected dumping ground and a place of natural beauty, between the ramshackle architecture and the people who live there, is what make Lutz’s pictures so intriguing.

Many of the images beg an explanation, like the despondent king and queen sitting at a roadside picnic table or a pregnant woman standing in what seems to be the open door of her motel room, gazing beyond the gas station outside. Perhaps she’s staying at the Delayed Cares Motel— another image that reads as a metaphor for the Meadowlands. Like one of Aitken’s guests, she appears at odds in her surroundings, stuck in a place where she doesn’t belong, on the way to somewhere else.

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