“Life is a series of chapters, and I think much of what makes life so vibrant is that we don’t know where we are going to go,” said Illustration alumnus Doug Aitken (BFA 91) this past November at the Oculus Hall at The Broad in downtown Los Angeles, upon receiving ArtCenter College of Design’s 2019 Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award.
An artist whose work explores every medium, from sculpture, film and installation to architectural intervention, Aitken’s immersive works have been experienced around the world at institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Aitken has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the International Prize at the Venice Biennale and a 2013 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award.
In 2017, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles mounted Aitken’s first fullscale midcareer North American survey, Electric Earth. In the introduction to that exhibition’s catalog, former MoCA director Philippe Vergne wrote that Aitken “engages with some of the most central concerns of our moment, from catastrophic environmental depredation to unprecedented technological mediation,” and that his work’s uniqueness lies in how he brings audiences together through his “endless search for creative forms, structures and spaces.”
At New York’s 303 Gallery, Aitken’s large-scale moving art installation migration (2008) transplanted migratory animals into roadside motels and projected them onto three to-scale billboards. In SONG 1 (2012), high-definition video projectors transformed the exterior of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn into a reflection of contemporary reality. In Underwater Pavilions (2016), three temporary underwater sculptures were installed off the coast of Catalina Island, explorable by snorkelers and scuba divers. And, beginning in 2017, Aitken installed a mirror-covered suburban ranch house in three locations. On the edge of the Coachella Valley, Mirage (2017) disappeared into the Western landscape. In the lobby of the hundred-year-old State Savings Bank in Detroit, Mirage Detroit (2018) absorbed the bank lobby’s archaic architecture. And in the mountains of Gstaad, Switzerland, Mirage Gstaad (2019) interacts with the changing seasons of its surroundings and, on Leap Day 2020, was the setting for a performance of Aitken’s musical composition “SONG MIRROR,” sung by six members of the L.A. Master Chorale.
Perhaps the most unexpected moment during Aitken’s acceptance of the award came when he shared with the audience one of his first ArtCenter experiences. As a new student in 1989, Aitken said, he had the opportunity to work with artist Keith Haring at the College’s Hillside Campus. Haring was painting a mural that would serve as a memorial to members of the art community who had died of AIDS. In appreciation for his assistance, Haring gave Aitken his supply of enamel paints. As a gesture of paying it forward, Aitken then presented to ArtCenter President Lorne M. Buchman a can of that paint, which he had recently discovered in his mother’s garage.
“We’re all in this together,” Aitken told the assembled audience before leaving the stage. “Let’s create. Let’s make our voices heard.”