The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has acquired Doug Aitken’s migration (2008, stills at left and below). migration is now in the collections of three American museums: The MIA, the Hammer Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art, which debuted the work at the 2008 Carnegie International. The fourth and final edition is held by a European institution. Last year the MIA acquired the ‘linear’ version of the piece, which is a single video projection onto a wall. It is on view now in the MIA’s Until Now: Collecting the New exhibition. (The work was also editioned in a ‘sculptural billboard version.’)
migration is a 24-minute film that features animals in hotel rooms. An owl sits still as feathers that were once contained by either a pillow or a comforter flurry down around it. A buffalo knocks stuff over. A beaver finds its way to water. A fox jumps on a bed and sends pieces of a puzzle flying. The animals-in-hotel-rooms clips are separated by close-ups of typical hotel room features such as door latches and cheap lamps, as well as by what appears to be stock wildlife video footage, apparently of migrations.
The film is surrealism-made-deadpan. It can be read a number of ways: A critique of sprawl-enabling land-use policies that have encouraged Americans to eat up as big a footprint of animal habitats as possible. A non-narrative children’s story. An opportunity to re-consider our own interactions within environments we’ve built and standardized, environments that are so homogeneous that we don’t think about them anymore. A delightful, 21st-century updating of Edward Hicks and Henri Rousseau.
But for the last couple weeks I’ve been thinking of migration this way: It seems — and is — both weird and surreal to interject animals into our environments. As Aitken shows, the animals don’t quite know what to do, but they typically revert to something that seems natural to them. (Witness the beaver making a, er, bee-line for water.)
But it’s also weird and surreal to interject humans into many animal environments. We’ve recently been bombarded with images from this interjection: We’ve placed dangerous heavy industry — oil-drilling equipment — in the animals’ place, off the shore of the southeast United States, in the Gulf of Mexico. As it turns out, British Petroleum and its partners didn’t quite know what to do in those environments, and now an environmental disaster is devastating an ecosystem. (In a related story, the intensified incursion of humans into Africa didn’t turn out as well for wildlife as Rousseau’s fantasies of man-wildlife interaction in faux-Africa.)
In the oily wake of recent events, Aitken’s film seems all the more fantastical. It’s easy to get carried away with the juxtapositions in migration and with the beauty of the film. But in thinking about migration over the last few days I’ve mostly remembered how confused the animals seem in Aitken’s hotel rooms (and how lost the elephant is in the cousin to Aitken’s piece: Douglas Gordon’s 2003 Play Dead; Real Time.) Human intrusions into natural habitats often work about as well as animal intrusions into our habitats. Maybe we should have read Aitken’s film as a whispered warning.
Related: Holly Myers wrote about Aitken and migration for the LA Times last year.