A still from Doug Aitkens 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
Theres something strange going on at the Super 8 Motel. With the exception of an occasional truck passing on a distant highway, Doug Aitkens video installation, Migration, is void of human presence. The guests have all grown fur and feathers.
Last year Aitkens video Sleepwalkers was projected in 8 sections on MoMAs 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 its 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, its projected on the museums façade. At 303 Gallery, Aitken uses three 15-foot screens that are made to resemble billboards and insinuate advertisings 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 hotelsmost of which seem to be from a bygone eraserve 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.
Aitkens 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 its the unfamiliar in our own back yard. Lutzs 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 Lutzs 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 marshlands 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 isnt 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 OConnor 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 Lutzs 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 shes staying at the Delayed Cares Motel another image that reads as a metaphor for the Meadowlands. Like one of Aitkens guests, she appears at odds in her surroundings, stuck in a place where she doesnt belong, on the way to somewhere else.