Magazine article The Spectator

Playing Around

Magazine article The Spectator

Playing Around

Article excerpt

Doug Aitken: new ocean (Serpentine Gallery, till 25 November)

Mike Nelson: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted (ICA, till 11 November)

In the rarefied world of international museum art, Doug Aitken and Mike Nelson are names to conjure with. Aitken won the International Prize at the 1999 Venice Biennale; Nelson made a big impression at this year's Biennale and is on the shortlist for the Turner Prize. Both are installation artists, but Aitken, a Californian, uses film and huge screens, while Nelson, a Briton, adapts the interior architecture of his site and furnishes it with assorted junk. The cool, glossy, expensive objectivity of the one is as far from the cheap, grubby intimacy of the other as a Hollywood movie from a play in a pub theatre, but what they have in common is narrative.

The viewer must take time to experience their work, and, confronted with strings of images or objects which are by no means self-explanatory, is likely to spend still more time trying to catch their meaning. That, however, would be a mistake, for these puzzling walk-throughs are intended to undermine our natural instinct to make sense of our surroundings and find the meaning of a narrative. Instead, they aim to involve us in an unfamiliar world of multiple, conflicting meanings in which reality, our conception of reality and the means we use to represent reality are as confusing as they are in dreams or fantasies. Both artists quote J.L. Borges, the great Argentine proponent of alternative and impossible worlds, and Nelson's show is accompanied by a book of extracts from his favourite authors, with a particular bias towards science fiction, pirates and outsiders in general (A Forgotten Kingdom, ICA, L5.99).

But visual artists are nearly always unwise to bandy concepts with literary artists, whose ancient medium of words continues to serve the purpose as efficiently as it did in the time of Plato and Aristotle. (Borges himself, a blind librarian, remarked that all writers are merely contributing their few words or pages to the great book of the world.) The problem for both these artists is that their installations are such clumsy devices, requiring elaborate apparatus and huge museum resources - the whole of the Serpentine Gallery and all the available exhibition space in the ICA, not to mention the warders to watch over them - to create conceptual worlds which could be summoned up more directly, comprehensively and persuasively by words in a book.

Aitken's new ocean begins in the Serpentine basement with a filmed Arctic landscape - sometimes projected upside-down - across three large screens. Ice cracks, snow melts, rivulets run, globules drop, while a soundtrack mixes the natural sounds of these events with an electronic score. Upstairs, a still photograph of a man standing in the entrance of a cave looking out at a stony or glacial landscape is doubled with the same photograph, minus the man. Aitken is fond of these broken-mirror effects and employs them constantly in the two large side-galleries, where his big screens are mounted in the form of a central X, with the same double images visible from all four sides as the viewer walks round.

One of the X formations shows a young male figure walking, running, falling, ascending an escalator, holding a flaming torch - his actions punctuated with some of the glacial images seen in the basement. The second X formation shows a female figure travelling in the underground and swinging to and fro in empty space - her adventures alternating with panoramas of a city by night. …

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