Doug Aitken’s Migration (Empire)

by Robert Mahoney

August 1, 2016

migration (empire) , Doug Aitken, 2008, video still

migration (empire), Doug Aitken, 2008, video still

Doug Aitken’s videos have over the past 20 years followed an upward gradient arc from in-gallery standard format video, to cinemascopic-scaled performative videos, on further to multiscreen extravaganzas, and finally to polymorphic multiscreen public art events that seems to seek to merge with and into the ambience of the multimedia world we all live in.  This gradient can be traced moving from to Twilight (2014), an illuminated phone in a gallery, through his Sonic Fountains, to the multiscreen Mirror (2013) shown in Seattle, a Sonic Pavilion (2009) placed on a hilltop in India, the gargantuan multiscreen effort Altered Earth(2012) and then Sleepwalkers (2007) on the façade of MOMA during its reconstruction. Aitken’s ambient imperative culminated in Station to Station, a cross-country train trip, carting and unpacking works of art at stops from New York to LA,  where with Nomadic Light Sculpture (2013), the side of the train itself was an ambient light sculpture which claimed station space with its lightshow at every stop. As he has scaled up the size of his videos, so too the status of its participants, as, video merging with movie aesthetics, in Black Mirror (2011) Aitken enlisted the help of indie heroines Tilda Swinton and Chloe Sevigny. Migration (empire) was also first shown in large format multiscreen ambience, and is being shown again this summer in Frankfurt in a similarly expansive, ambient way.  For all of the spectacle, there remains some serious problems with video’s attempt to exist in a standalone format, it’s ability to command a space, and not fade into the static of media life often compromised. This is not the case with Aitken’s migration (empire) (2008) now up in the small Riley Contemporary Artists Project Gallery at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha all summer (through September 4). From beginning to end this is an intriguing, apparently blunt, but ultimately subtle, exploration of our dis-ease with the spaces we live in and around.  At the Josyln, the presentation of the video is much more modest, limited to the size of the rather small Riley CAP gallery. For me, this is a good thing, it helps focus the theme back on the locale in which it is being shown. The video in a small space reinforces the claustrophobia of the animals in motel rooms, but it also reminds locals that the very rooms Aitken is talking about are numerous, not far from this museum in middle America itself. It also refocuses attention on the animals, as animals. In large, multiscreen format, the animals tend to evaporate into the ambience and become symbols of abstract forces, their allegorical quality is emphasized. Here, however, they are returned to their skins, and all they represent is animals, discomfited by odd placements.


migration (empire) (2008) takes place entirely in motel rooms, and features several real animals placed into those rooms, to see how they will respond. Each episode, animal by animal, is fascinating, as each species seems to respond to the space of a motel room in a different way. But since this is all set in a motel room, all the animals also serve as metaphorical vessels, their discomfort and even bewilderment at where they are, somehow bouncing off the same feelings in human beings, often especially those who stay in motels. By placing animals in sites of human habitation Aitken creates a kind of counterreality wherein we are allowed to muse with irony and wry humor on the plight of both their, and our own situation on the planet. For that, the work provides a certain mental relief, downplaying our anxiety at transience when compared to the animals’ situation (such animal-based counterreality art is as old as human culture, with examples dating from ancient Egypt and before).

Back in 1991 I wrote an essay on Hotelphobia for an impromptu one-night “occupation” art show of a hotel in Cologne, Germany, and this art world interest later expanded into my study of the trope of the motel room as a place of fear and even dread for most Americans as expressed in movies and life. In horror movies, in particular, every aspect of the motel room has been demonized and instrumentalized as a dangerous entity: the notquitethickenough door, the closeness of the room to the parking lot, the walls (especially if wood paneled), the bad landscape painting, the lumpy beds with too thin sheets, the staticy TV reception, the strange lamps, the dirty carpet, the lousy bathrooms, the shower (in a motel the most common site of hot water therapy against driving-all-day aches and pains), the phone numbers writ on the walls, the backwindow in the bathroom, all of these devices have given folks the willies as they age in the marketplace and are overcome by more modern standards. The semiology of each one of these devices is rich and deep, there are hundreds of movies with creepy roadside motel rooms (Psycho, for example; the motel sequences in Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982) are also choice; the whole From Dusk to Dawn series, but, especially, From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999); even, today, the shootout at the end of Fargo, Season 2, on FX;; then, too motel fears have also been memorialized in what one visitor to it I recently talked to called the chilling frozen-in-time nature of the memorial to the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, the Lorraine Motel, has, as part of the museum, been kept entirely in tact). All of this is part of the “secret language” of movies and culture. It would appear (without going deeply into it), that Aitken is at least moderately aware of these meanings, as several of them popped up over the course of the video. This is a good thing, as Aitken knows the triggers that activates agency (mainly fear and uncertainty), that then elicits response in the viewers, but he then twists them ironically, to make us smile or wince. It is also amusing that animals inadvertently knock over things in ways that strangely mimic human fears of the same objects, so perhaps, again, there are more parallels, in our common creaturliness, than we like to think (terror management theory argues that we fight off fear of death by erecting a citadel of formalism over our abhorrent creaturliness). Though it is true that there is a visual split between the roadside nature of the motel signage Aitken films, all pre-Holiday Inn motels that would by today’s standard exist downmarket from the norms of the mainstream lodging market, often serving as transient lodging for some shady types (last winter some genius holed up each night in a roadside motel outside of Lincoln, while going on a convenient store robbery spree over the course of several days!) and the interiors, which are as clean and white as fancy hotels, but by and large I accepted this as an aesthetic decision to highlight the animals in their deer-in-the-headlights experience in human habitations but in a way in accordance with art world white cube norms

The video starts out with shots of what appear to be a place in the Northeast United States, perhaps Pittsburgh, and then moves out to Arizona, or California, where palm trees grow. We get a sight of a motel sign, and then we go inside. But, there, stands a full size horse, in the middle of the motel room. His hooves imprint the carpet, he seems unable to move, uncertain of where he is. Am I in my stable, or is this a fancy stable (horses, such as Caligula’s Incitatus, have been known to enjoy human luxury), he seems to ask, his bewilderment is strangely moving. His encounter with the carpeting mimics human concern at how clean it is; with the space, our satisfaction or not with enough or not of room. Then we shift to birds, a few of them on a bed, they too seem disoriented, do interact, but in an obtuse way that makes fun of the existential sex fearful folk often make on or in motel room beds (the movie Fargo (1996)). At the Crescent Inn we get nice shots of the pool, and other amenities, then smile to watch a raccoon dunk his head under the tub faucet, but then, also sneak a drink. Well, he would, he’s a beaver. At the Comet motel, which has a somewhat darker look, a bison is all cooped up in the room, his bulk building into him instant cabin fever. He ruins the carpet with his heavy hooves, but then makes use of the bed as a scratching post, rubbing his head on its end, then bucking up and overturning the sheets and bedding.  This too feels like a parody of empty motel room sex, but perhaps also something more basic, ripping off sheets if too hot, not being able to settle down or get to sleep, or turning over a room looking for something. He also mills about helplessly, looking forlornly out the window, then turns about, knocking the phone onto the floor, also knocking a lamp over. This too commonly represents the restlessness of idle motel life (I thought of Rayette (Karen Black) in Five Easy Pieces (1970), stuck waiting in a motel room while Bobby goes sees what’s what at home). Next we switch to another vignette, by way of static on a motel tv, always bad news, and sign of entering an altered state of consciousness, and a flag, never reassuring, we find in fact that proverbial deer in the headlights itself in the motel room, staring glumly with an “are you serious?” look at an animal trophy on the wall, and I think it was the deer too that nosed into the mini frig to see if he could get a drink (nope). He also bespeaks human counterpart yikes at seeing some dated or creepy bit of taxidermy furnishing in such rooms (going all the way back to the Bates Motel of course).


Perhaps one of the drollest sequences of the video is when we encounter with a sense of shock a mountain lion having made its way into the room. His prowling nervousness immediately references animal invasion sequences in movies, of which there are many (the polar bear in The Great Race (1964) comes to mind). As to be expected he not only has a kind of pillow fight with the bedding, but also then does the total rock star in hotel room trashing thing, with lamp smashing here especially (as with Pamela Franklin’s cat fight in The Legend of Hell House) signifying chaos and the end of the world. His little adventure also profiles the rock bottom mayhem that some residents fall to in motels, bottoming out on a bender (Don Draper in Madmen) or the like. In a rather forlornly greenlit motel, a hawk sits in confusion too, and in a Motel 6, I think called The Scotsman, an elk makes the trophying come alive, with Aitken playing abstractly with his antlers as a kind of living substitute of the chandelier lacking in the space (the video could also be reviewed simply for its formal beauty). Strangely, here as elsewhere, animality activates fears of bogeymen coming through the door, another common motel discomfort.

In each vignette, Aitken pauses to give the animal involved their due, allowing reflection on issues of encroachment on nature, captivity and fear of extinction, but then when they begin to move or react (one assumes that Aitken yelled “cut!” before the animal totally freaked out), the motel room is activated in a way in which the Umwelt of the animal (term from Uexkull for the limited-perceptive vision of animals in their environments) begins to drolly comment on the bare bones existentialist feelings that humans often have to deal with in transient lodgings, and which have all been made the source of many fears in movies. The sequencing then, in these one-two, before-after vignettes, wobbles pleasingly across the mind, from what’s going on?, to a knowing ah-ha of sympathetic understanding. Thus, Aitken speaks to animal issues, then also human issues, but ultimately leaves all inference in a third space in between, letting the viewer work out the ambiguities. This effect works best in a magical sequence at the end where an owl perched quizzically on a bed covered in pillow feathers takes flight, his wings stirring up the feathers, for them, then, to all fly about and then drift down, a conversion of animal action into symbolic reaction that is straight up poetic.

The video is beautifully shot, to give it a solid movie quality, it’s mis en scene is intelligently staged, it’s score is grave and mysterious (mostly organ), the locations and properties are carefully instrumentalized, all informed by actual movie culture.  The overall effect is a hypnotic meditation on the still uncertain way in which both animals and humans relate to living in the wide open spaces of the North American continent, both, simultaneously, increasingly encroached upon, and forever beset by agoraphobia (fear of wide open spaces also a theme with deep roots). A final note: the movie, for all this, also has a kind of universal appeal, likely due to the animal cast, proven by the fact that I saw kids stay put to watch it too, and I can also report that when my daughter, after seeing the video, was set up in her motel room she made a video meme of Aitken’s Empire with a stuffed bison she’d bought at the State History Museum, perhaps to calm down her own unease at her temporary residence in four walls and a bed and a floor and a TV and a bath that were not her own--and nervously laugh the willies away. 

Doug Aitken’s migration (empire) (2008), Riley Contemporary Artists Project Gallery, Joslyn Museum, Omaha, through September 4.

Note: All references to movies in the following are part of my set of references, not the artist’s.