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.

Diamond Sea was showcased as a single channel-piece at 1997's Whitney Biennial. Aitken's no rookie, and he's been honing his work for the past several years not only artistically but commercially; he's a former photographer and illustrator for raygun magazine, and in his off-time, he directs videos for acts like Fatboy Slim and Low. Since the early 90's, he's been exploring the beautiful and necessary dissolution of the boundaries between film, art, photography, and advertising; in the process he's finding new ways to tell stories, through impressions and glances rather than traditional narrative forms. Like his piece Diamond Sea, he is succeeding with far more grace than you might expect--especially if you've been thinking too long and hard about such matters.

Diamond Sea is at the Dallas Museum of Art through August 8. Northeast Quadrant Gallery. Free. For information, call (214) 922-1200.

Them's fightin' words
Despite the clearly stated wishes of the gallery owners of Exposition Park to have me canned or killed because of my last column ["Critic's Choice," May 20; also see Letters in this issue], neither has come to pass. However, I did receive an especially fetching "Death Mask," complete with ominous black container and an anonymous delivery to the Dallas Observer's front desk. The mask itself is signed--and now that we at the Observer have deloused it (don't ask), I am happy to review it as a genuine piece of art. More on that later.

Strange that a writer can spill 700 words of apology before making her negative point and still be considered evil. Not to mention a liar. Yes, I was down at Expo Park that weekend. Yes, I walked through each gallery. That the gallery owners didn't see me ain't my problem. I'm there to view, not make friends.

OK, so I hit a nerve--that's what critics do on occasion. But despite the protesters' claims, I never wrote that the gallery owners of the new Expo Park spaces were bad people with bad intentions. In fact, I stressed their good intentions. So much for diplomacy.

About the mask: The piece is by none other than Eddie Ruiz, owner of Expo 825, one of the spaces I covered.

Here goes: The Death Mask of Christina Rees is a tiny monument to both traditional assemblage art and angry catharsis, an intimate icon of ire and restraint. The delicate curves of the infant face, captured perfectly in milky plaster and gazing out with flat, vacuous eyes, force the viewer to confront a spectrum of emotional turmoil: fear, repulsion, sympathy.

The slash of red paint rolls down the right side of the face, intersecting the eye in a bloody loop. The art critic as blind man, the commentator as obtuse--a sentiment heightened by the brash, pencil-scratched blindfold running side to side beneath the paint. And the word "critic," pasted across the baby's mouth? Obviously, ingeniously, the wailer is silenced by its own trained vices.

Across its front is pasted and scrawled various media, including paper cut-out phrases from my review, and Ruiz's penciled-in sentiments scattered among these:

Rees: "...what's breeding in Fair Park..."
Ruiz: "you made this personal"
Rees: "...go home and crawl under the covers..."
Ruiz: "you get a real job!"

Such incendiary quid pro quo continues on the mask's backside, crowned with the title: "DEATH MASK OF CHRISTINA REES."

Let's not forget the sharp, twisted wire piercing its back, hanger-style. It reminds me of the mask's pseudo-utilitarian intent--all irony stemming from the its size (no adult could wear it) and the teaming of opposed concepts: death through a newborn. He signs it as his "search for meaning, irony, and beauty"--something I accused his gallery's art of lacking.

Like any deserving art, my little death mask is mounted in a place of pride. In this case, our editor-in-chief's office.

Too bad all those artists and gallery owners who have personally commended me for the column aren't writing letters (or sending art); that's always the way. But you gotta get a person angry to incite such letter-writing fervor.

P.S. to anyone who noticed: I misspelled Calder's name, and will surely pay for it in art-critic hell, which is doubtless where I'm headed.

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