Well-cut gem

Doug Aitken collapses the boundaries between art, film, and storytelling in his Diamond Sea, and without thinking about it too much

Too often, we drain our best ideas by analyzing them to a pulp; the real juice is gone before we ever make the first move. After such hair-pulling, the concept that seemed brilliant at its inception finishes hollow and insincere--or so damn academic you wanna send it to detention hall for boring us to tears. "This mixed-media sculpture is my nine-part interpretation of Camus' The Stranger, redefined by my own experience as an abused child..." Or so the artiste tells us ad nauseam.

That's the fate of so much conceptual art these days. The kids graduate with their MFAs and their numbed-with-discourse brains, and they spend the next 30 years trying to back every piece they create with some hyper-intellectual defense. Too often, high-art theory bludgeons perfectly good guts and instinct into opaque, quivering jelly. What a waste.

Comes the counterrevolution: a herd of young artists who wouldn't crack an art book if you promised to build their stretcher frames (or buy their aerosol caps) for the next decade. They collect street cred through proud ignorance, and they douse any high-vs.-low argument with shock art. If the viewer is too scared to approach an artist's piece made of rotting carcasses or exploding nail bombs, he's not likely to stick around for later discussion. The artwork's success hinges on viewer alienation, on the art hounds feeling "in" because they "get" it better than the Morley Safers of the world, who look on sorely dumbfounded by unanchored pretense. Thing is, these artists, too, are overthinking their strategy simply by trying too hard to rail against...whatever.

Young and conceptual and trained as he is, Doug Aitken has somehow sidestepped both of these aesthetic potholes. And thank God for it. The old school is starting to wonder whether the new school is made up entirely of pranksters and self-analyzing megalomaniacs. Hell, even the new school is getting sick of itself. But if you walk into Aitken's installation at the Dallas Museum of Art, you witness the work of an artist who balances his instincts with learned insight, his advanced technique with spontaneity. It's a mesmerizing testament to how a relatively uncharted and humble art form--in this case, digitized 16mm film--can transcend expectation in the right hands.

The idea for the piece, Diamond Sea, was born when the Los Angeles-based Aitken spotted a huge blank area on a map of Southwestern Africa, labeled nothing more than "Diamond Areas 1 and 2." Once he found out that this California-size desert in Namibia has been sealed off from civilians since 1908 and that it's home to the world's prime diamond-mining grounds, he spent a year cutting through serious red tape to secure a permit to film there. Thing is, even with all that waiting, he never laid out a specific strategy or narrative, never drained the idea of capturing the place on film through overplanning. He didn't overthink it. He knew he'd simply arrive with his tiny crew and roll super-16 camera. The bizarre, gorgeous, and desolate area would speak for itself, would have enough to say without Aitken interjecting much of his own psyche. If anything, Aitken lets his own take on these 40,000 square miles speak through his cinematography, through the film's musical score, through the building rhythm of the editing, which still leaves generous room for viewers to stake their place in this alien world.

It's about 12 minutes of pure impression, projected through one large TV monitor and onto three walls, all in one darkened quadrant gallery at the DMA. Sometimes simultaneously, sometimes with subtle lags and changes, huge images flit across the museum walls: the blazing, white-hot light of the desert, the giant, computer-programmed diamond-mining machines that intersect this landscape. Pounding jackhammers are juxtaposed with pounding waves of the nearby coastline; eerie high-tech interiors of recently deserted offices precede scenes of eerie sand-filled interiors of long-deserted homes. Conveyer belts make noises only slightly different than gusts of strong wind. A small herd of Portuguese horses, the wild descendants of a long-ago shipwreck, trots across the endless stretch of hard-baked earth.

Aitken moves his camera in close enough to see the legs of a fly on a horse, and he pulls it back far enough to produce a vista that would make Terence Malick sigh. The sonic unfolding of the piece is key: occasionally, the natural sound weaves into musical strain (compliments Aphex Twin and gastr del sol, among other maestros of the loop-and-sample realm) before weaving back out again. The whole is an uninterrupted immersion in a place we'll never be able to see with our own eyes.

Through it, we can recall Bill Viola (video as moving painting) or Nancy Graves (film transforming nature into abstract art), if not the psychedelic projections filling the backgrounds of behemoth raves. But Diamond Sea isn't as message-laden as Viola, or as image-specific as Graves, and it's sure not as passive as ambient video. This piece asks you to suspend expectation, and the results are both hypnotic and transporting. You feel the essence of the place so keenly, you'd swear you'd been there, and by the second or third viewing it starts to feel like you're either experiencing dream-based deja vu or watching your own travel memories spring straight from your unconscious onto the museum walls.

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