Doug Aitken’s installation _Migration (Empire)_, which is on view in front of the University Art Museum until November 14, has two very different faces. During the day, when students hurry past the museum on the way to class, Aitken’s work is only visible as a nondescript billboard—bright white and low to the ground. It is easy to mistake the work’s daytime face, the billboard, for the entire artwork. Perhaps, passing students think, the University has invested in a new hyper-modern artwork: a blank ad space signifying the bleakness of the modern world and the pervasiveness of advertising. It is only at night that the installation shows its true face. As the sun sets the billboard becomes a canvass onto which a 24-minute film created by Aitken is projected in a continuous loop. Aitken’s piece is surreal; it is a series of vignettes featuring animals native to North America in motel rooms. He occasionally interjects images of industrial landscapes, oil wells, and rivers into the soundless feature, but the focus is on the animals and the rooms. Aitken, by combining familiar elements, creates something truly odd.
The animals in Aitken’s film explore their surroundings in different ways. A bison towers over his motel room, smashing furniture with abandon. An eagle perches on the bed in its room and stares at the camera. Invisible human hands draw a bath for a beaver, which flops around in the water contentedly. These simple scenes become more engaging the longer you watch them. When a particular animal no longer holds your attention, Aitken switches to another, or to a pair of animals, or to a half dozen jackrabbits that pop up over a series of shots. As with the jackrabbits, Aitken’s sense of humor is redeeming. He puts a deer in a room with a mounted pair of antlers, pairs a horse with a television showing video footage of horses, and puts a fox on a bed with a puzzle board, which it sniffs. The entire film is somewhat comical—a deer drinks out of a pool, a cougar demolishes a bed. The film is also beautiful. Aitken shoots animals up close, highlighting an eye, fur, feathers. The film is pleasant to watch and can be extremely calming, leading the viewer to inadvertently watch all 24 minutes. It is fortuitous that _Migration_ is only on display at night: it is best to watch when the campus is quieter and there is less to distract from the film. When Aitken staged a sonic “happening” at the billboard on October 7, the music seemed to detract from the solitude of the piece.
Aitken, at a recent lunch on campus, mentioned that one of the major themes of his recent work has been repetition. The film is clearly informed by his interest in the subject. The entire piece loops continuously, and it can be hard to identify the beginning and end without watching it through a few times. The settings also play off the theme of repetition: Aitken filmed in motels that are so similar to each other that, at first, one might think that all of the rooms are in the same building. By presenting the film as an installation, Aitken makes it more a part of the landscape than a particular screening. You might see an owl standing motionless on a bed covered in feathers on the way home from lab or headed to a party. Like a piece of sculpture, _Migration_ is something you come across on campus more than something you go to see.
It would be difficult to draw a single message out of Aitken’s piece. Shots taken outside of motel rooms are mostly of the natural landscape or manmade industry, suggesting a potential environmental message. Aitken has placed animals that used to dominate the American landscape into human constructions that have, in many cases, replaced them. They seem strange and awkward in the human world, clearly out of place. We have displaced the animal world, at their expense. Watching the film, though, the joke seems to be on the human viewer. The longer I watched Aitken’s piece, the more I felt alienated by the overly sanitary, empty motel rooms. They looked inhospitable, with white walls and empty space. I began to notice a kinship between motel rooms and dorm rooms—both are temporary habitations that are stripped clear of their inhabitant’s personal affects every time they change hands. No matter how many posters we put up, our rooms are never really ours. As at home as we are at school, there is a fumbling awkwardness to the animals in the film, a sense of being out of place that matches everyone’s experience at some point. Aitken’s piece is worth watching: stop and see it some quiet evening before it gets cold.