Doug Aitken’s awe-inspiring work comments on the aesthetics of the future and the conflict between modernity and nature. His video work New Era (2018), for example, is about the invention of the cellular telephone, investigating the chasm between the imagined for future of this technology and its actual impact on society; installations like Return to Real (2019) used translucent sculptures of women and their phones, along with a sonic and light counterpart, to again touch on the entanglement of human lives and communication technologies. Now, he’s pushing his eye-popping sensibility even further with a new exhibition that spans four cities and exists mainly in the form of virtual reality.
Titled “Open,” the show launched today at four galleries—303 Gallery in New York, Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich, Regen Projects in Los Angeles, and Victoria Miro in London—and sees the artist breaking into new territory, since he’s never before worked with virtual reality. “At first I was very hesitant to work with VR. I found a lot of what I’ve seen unconvincing,” Aitken said in an interview.
Covid changed his mind about VR, however. “It was a situation where museums and galleries and exhibition spaces were closed, and so I thought that there could be a potential in working with VR,” he continued. To make these new works, he worked closely with Vortic, a VR production company that is run by Oliver Miro, the son of Victoria Miro. (In addition to appearing within the four galleries, Aitken’s latest project will be hosted on Vortic’s app.)
At the four galleries where “Open” is being staged, visitors will be fitted with Oculus headsets that they can wear while walking through the uncanny digital spaces Aitken has produced. Aitken wanted to steer clear of the fantastical, super-saturated, game-like aesthetics that the technology often supports. Instead, the virtual exhibiting spaces he designed are comparatively restrained and minimalist. In one digital viewing room, Metallic Sleep (2022), a digital sculpture of interlocking oval mirrors, stands in the center of a small arena surrounded by a high concrete wall, above which a twilit sky shifts in an unreal wind.
In another digital exhibition space viewable with the headsets, the white cube of a gallery is recreated, but slats in the roof opens up to a sunny sky. These conditions aren’t static—throughout the day, the sky changes in light and color to reflect the passage of time. Many of Aitken’s well-known works will also be referenced or recreated in this new context, like his reflective hot air balloon New Horizon (2019) as well as his text-based sculptures.
The ability to craft a totally new exhibiting space for larger-than-life sculptures was what eventually convinced Aitken that working with VR could be worth it. “The more we explored it, the more interesting it became,” Aitken said. “I saw this as an opportunity to reinvent the exhibition space, where you could do things that don’t exist in the physical world.”
“The digital exhibit does not replace the physical, of course,” Aitken continued. “It’s almost like another tributary. We want the real, we want to see physical art, but as we’re seeing there are so many situations in which that’s not always possible.”