If possible, it might be best to see Doug Aitken’s single-video channel installation Migration with little or no foreknowledge of his previous work and let this astoundingly beautiful little film exist free of preconceptions. The artist, who splits his time between California and New York, has made numerous films, designed site-specific installations, and sculpted, photographed, and collaborated on multimedia projects with the likes of musician Cat Power and actress Tilda Swinton — to call his work interdisciplinary seems inadequate. In Migration, peacocks, deer, and beaver are filmed occupying motel rooms in vignettes that strike a poignant, provocative chord — talk about unexpected guests. Despite the incongruity of the animals and the setting, the work isn’t funny; it’s too frank, too finely and respectfully wrought to be a joke.
Originally designed in 2008 as an outdoor installation for the 55th annual Carnegie International show in Pittsburgh, Migration has since appeared in venues from Frankfurt to Omaha. For its inclusion in SITE Santa Fe’s Future Shock, the film is projected onto a custom-made billboard. It opens with a brown horse in a motel room who seems nervous, almost pacing, its hooves kicking up fine clouds of dust from the carpeted floor. The animal’s long-lashed, blinking eyes strike the viewer as beautiful, of course, but mostly poignant, since it seems to be watching grainy footage of other horses galloping across a fuzzy television screen mounted on one of the room’s walls. Next we’re transported into a different hotel room, whose twin beds are occupied by two majestic white peacocks. Throughout Migration’s 24-minute duration, a total of 12 species appear in myriad settings. A deer sipping from a swimming pool and a beaver wetting its muzzle under the running water of a bathtub faucet provoke tender, protective feelings, while a mountain lion destroying bed linens is devilishly enjoyable. A red fox pounces onto a bed overlaid with a jigsaw puzzle, sending the pieces flying into the air, but this rambunctiousness switches to curiosity as he sniffs the game pieces quizzically, even gently. More somber is a buffalo, who scratches his massive, shaggy head against the bedpost before staring out the window of his cramped motel quarters. The animal seems dejected or disheartened, but of course that’s a human projection.
Anyone who’s road-tripped across America has stayed at a fleabag motel, the characteristics of which are weirdly ubiquitous: the faded print of a forest clearing or bouquet above the bed, the carpet an indeterminate grayish-tan, the scratched-brass doorknob and the wafer of turquoise soap by the sink. Motel rooms are interstitial, uneasy places to most of the people who pass through them — they’re lonely pit-stops on the way from one place to the other. Viewing this setting thus provides a sensation both alienating and familiar, which we vicariously experience through the animals in Aitken’s film.
Aitken’s animals are frequently shot in close perspective, which enhances their beauty in a way that is mesmerizing. We’re not looking through them as much as we’re looking alongside them, ingesting the utter foreignness of their environs. As evening falls, we see an owl, an already otherworldly creature whose glowing eyes appear extraterrestrial, blinking at us from its perch on a king-size bed. Against the singsong of chirping birds, the camera pans away from the stationary owl as the room fills with thousands of downy feathers. Light is a powerful character in the film, whether gently filtered through sheer curtains or spilling onto carpeted hallways. Rather than highlighting imperfections or ugliness, the light is salvic, evincing a limbo that’s illuminating and warming. In one way or another, all of Aitken’s animals are drawn to light, whether toward a blinking lamp, the refracted surface of a swimming pool, or even the glow of an opened refrigerator door.
This ephemeral, brief film seems especially fitting for SITE Santa Fe as a place modeled after the German kunsthalle: a museum-like space with no permanently held artworks or collections. Doug Aitken has made migration and its transitory themes feel magically familiar; it might be said that the artworks migrate much like the subjects of his film — or even us, the visitors who come and go throughout this special space.