by Danielle Shang
Internet and smart phone technologies have led to sweeping change in society in our lifetime, forcing us to wrestle with new modes of thinking about and experiencing time, space, and speed, whereby our intellectual and emotional responses to past, present, and future are constantly shifting. Questions of who we are as social beings and what kind of a future awaits us rise hand-in-hand with greater freedom and accessibility afforded us via hyper-connectivity. LA artist Doug Aitken’s exhibition at Faurschou Foundation Beijing is his thesis to interrogate those ideas.
Faurschou Foundation Beijing is located in one of the several former industrial plants in Bauhaus style with distinctive saw-toothed rooftops and asymmetrical rooms in Art Zone 798. The buildings were designed by East German architects in the early 1950s. Every roof is a series of parabolic curves that rise high to a peak and fall diagonally with tall glass windows connecting the parapet. All of the windows face north, ensuring a well-balanced and consistent distribution of natural light. The main principle of Bauhaus is to integrate practical function with its aesthetics while minimizing costs.
Aitken’s exhibition consists of three chapters. It begins with a dark room, where the viewer is confronted with New Era(2018), a three-channel video installation in a hexagonal space, in which three mirror walls alternate with three wall projections, forming an immense kaleidoscope. As soon as the viewer steps in, she sees her multiple reflections in the moving images and hears the surrounding sound from all directions. “Hello, My Name is Martin Cooper. In 1973 I invented the very first cellular telephone. Standing on 6th Avenue, New York City, near the Hilton Hotel, I made a phone call. This was the very first public cell phone call.” The images of the elderly mobile phone inventor and his invented device, as well as montages of vast open landscapes are in continually shuffling patterns that envelop the viewer.
The hexagonal design of New Eraenacts an infinite optical and psychological space, commanding the viewer’s attention with simultaneous events in flux. A hexagon is the ideal compromise between a polygon and a circle. Similar to a honeycomb cell, the shape of a hexagon creates an open area while minimizing boundaries. It is not coincident that cellular phone companies use the hexagonal grid to map and distribute signal coverage. To some extent, a hexagonal design concerns the same principle behind the Bauhaus architecture in achieving the best function with minimal economy of material.
Cooper’s invention breaks down the barrier of distance, and speeds up the connectivity, which elevates us to a whole new notion of the present. As Historian and scholar Stephen Kern argues: “[The sense of the present is] expanded spatially to create vast, shared experience of simultaneity.” On the one hand, it levels social and economical hierarchies, but on the other hand, this instant simultaneity obscures our sense of reality.Aitken comments, “We live in a society of every place but no place, fiction and non-fiction. All is connected with the speed of light.”
A portal to the second dark room frames a standing woman who is glowing with pulsing light. Like the beacon of a lighthouse, the illumination pulls the viewer in. Three Modern Features (Don’t Forget To Breathe)(2018) in the second room comprises three life-size human figures casted with frosted resin with colored LED lights flowing in and out their translucent bodies. Speakers beneath the wooden floor emanate sound that was composed out of a compilation of human voices. Words and sentences are repeated and sometimes distorted into abstraction. The sound and its vibration arouse visceral responses, while the light and the frequency penetrate the space in sequence, creating a sensory highway between sensation conceptualized and concept animated.
The two women, one standing, the other sitting, and a man lying on the ground, occupy three independent spaces in the room, clutching invisible phones to their ears. Consumed by the phone calls and emotionally insulated from one and another, they are frozen in time and space and immersed in the darkness of self-alienation and ennui. Life and information are drained off them by the pulsing light. The smart phone has become the culture of our age, but in this hyper-connected world, the basic human connection to each other is depleted. As Stephen Kern describes, “[We are feeling] cut off from the flow of time, excessively attached to the past, isolated in the present, without a future, or rushing toward one.”
There is an advantage to having experiencedThree Modern Featuresin Los Angeles. The installation was temporarily situated in a storefront of a seedy strip mall at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, once the epicenter of transgender prostitution and drug dealing in LA. On a rainy winter evening, I was surprised by the eerie glow in the dark. The guerrilla-theater-like location, a different chamber of transformation than Faurschou, joined the installation itself as a unit of discourse, which thereby conditioned the work with narratives and readings specific to the milieu of LA and extrinsic to China, except for the notions of self-alienation and social isolation.
The exhibition concludes with a nod to the past. Crossing the Border(2018) in the last room is a monumental concrete and stone silhouette of Gandhi holding a glowing trekking pole in his hand and climbing uphill toward an envisioned future. Ironically, today’s omnipresence of wireless waves can be analogized to the power of the spiritual intervention of Gandhi. Yet, something sacred has been lost in our contemporary hyper-connectivity. While Gandhi led his people to the future by coming to terms with the past, technology warps our trajectory to the future by collapsing past, present and future into one constructed, simultaneous space in flux.
Will we survive in the brave new world, as narrated by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 dystopian science fiction, in which man completely surrenders himself to technology? Michael Bess, scholar and historian of science predicts, “We may survive, but we may not survive as something we recognize.”
Based on the interview with the artist
Los Angeles, April 2019