Doug Aitken Makes His Own Western, an Eerie Film Installation About Oil and Placelessness

Doug Aitken’s latest work, HOWL, is a 15-minute, five-channel film about an unnamed town in the American West. It’s filled with epic aerial shots of oil wells and daily life in the town, along with short excerpts from interviews with some of its residents. Those interviews take on an eerie meaning as their words echo and reverberate.

Currently on view at Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich, the Los Angeles–based artist’s new work is set in a black-box room with two wooden structures (one with three screens, the other with two) that encircle the viewer, who can take a seat on a small wooden block. To access the installation, you first have to enter through two rooms containing related sculptures that related to HOWL, along with wallpapers printed with some of the landscape shots included in the film.

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To learn more about the exhibition, which runs through July 22, ARTnews sat down with Aitken for iced tea at zum Gaul, an outdoor eatery in Zurich, about a block from the gallery.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ARTnews: How did you begin working on HOWL, the film that’s at the heart of the show?

Doug Aitken: To me, HOWL is really this body of work, this Gesamtkunstwerk, that creates this journey into the landscape. It’s almost a geological exhibition that is using elements that are on top of the landscape, like human-made, built constructs, language, image, photography, people’s habitation. The friction within the work is between deep time and shallow time. Our mark [on the world] is so short and temporary, but in a certain way, there’s a permanent mark-making that we’re doing.

In HOWL, you find this remote desert town that’s surrounded by endless oil fields. They’re just moving day and night, with and without humankind. They’re pumping, excavating, and extracting the minerals of the earth. This was a boomtown in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. When you look at it now, to me, it almost creates a lens into the future. It almost creates a way to talk about the future through seeing the past. The work is not a documentary. It’s not a didactic piece. It’s not black or white, right or wrong. It’s more of a composition of people and place, this continuous questioning of what’s next. Where do we go? What’s over the horizon? What’s the next frontier? Because here is a space that’s so damaged, so fracked, that the blood is sucked out of the earth.

I noticed that press release explicitly states that HOWL is “not a documentary, rather a non-linear narrative.” Why did you want to go for that approach?

I never had a script for this project. I never had a specific plan. It was absolutely process-based. I found myself almost creating this work out of curiosity: you create a string, it makes a rope, and you start climbing on this rope that leads you deeper into something that you know little about. In this situation, it was very much about the idea of place—the idea of place in the 21st century.

I would go out to these locations and find people, and just talk to them, with no plan, no set of questions, no agenda. Over time, I realized that in these conversations that we were having, I didn’t hear people talking about politics. I didn’t hear people speaking about red or blue, about who they’re voting for. But the conversations were much more internal, much more personal. They seemed to have much more to do with survival, about asking that question of: We’re here today, where are we tomorrow?

After filming for about a year to a year and a half, I looked at the footage, but it was far too documentary. It was too long-winded, too long-form. I just put it away, and I came back to it about eight months later. I had this idea that maybe I’m seeing it wrong, and instead I should see it as a composition, almost a musical piece. I started going back and reducing the language down to a few words or a single sentence, looking at a minimal structure, both visually and musically. Looking at the idea that one sentence repeated can take on different meanings and a different significance when it’s heard two, three, five times, when it’s layered and abstracted.

A sculpture that reads 'HOWL' with images of desert rocks inside the letters. Behind is wallpaper of lush trees.
Installation view of “Doug Aitken: HOWL,” 2023, at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Photo Stefan Altenburger/©Doug Aitken/Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich and Vienna

There’s a resonance when you hear those short sentences, almost echoing after each other. When you were talking to these people, were you surprised that politics didn’t come up?

I was. I had no expectations, but I thought that there would be a divide. What I found instead was something much more humanistic, much more individualistic. It wasn’t a portrait of a polarized country or continent. Instead, it was about this existential question of the individual, looking for a place in this continuously shifting architecture that we’re creating in our society.

How did you find the town?

I was just drifting. There are probably a thousand towns like this. If you remove the topography, every country, every continent has this place, whether it’s a jungle in West Africa, the Outback in Australia, or the plains of China. To me, it became placeless. It is a universally abstract place, but the human touch and human observation was specific. That created a frequency and depth that I hadn’t expected.

I also got the sense that you intentionally made it so the name of the town wasn’t easily identifiable.

The idea of place is something that I’m fascinated by. The idea of the cohabitation of the landscape and society. And then that question of: What do we do with it? I think the landscape can often reflect the individual, and the individual can be reflected in the landscape. There’s a piece that I did in 1997, Diamond Sea, which is a work that we filmed in the diamond mines in Namibia. In that work, there is a similar motif: the idea of the earth and its excavation. But there are no humans in it. The mines in Diamond Sea are almost completely computer-automated, lumbering across the landscape, sifting gem diamonds, moving on their own within this 70,000-square-kilometer secured area. HOWL, to me, is the antithesis to that. This is a very human-driven and human-occupied landscape. In it, you see these machines that are like very much of the mechanical revolution. These aren’t 21st-century mechanisms. They’re not digital and binary; they’re old and greasy. It’s interesting because we still have that substructure. It’s this filthy, gritty, creaking mechanism that still fuels the heat in our apartments, the vehicles we drive, the planes we fly on. On a very personal level, making this project was almost like pulling back the curtain and looking into that void.

A woman stands in front of three massive screens that show young women performing in a pageant.
Installation view of “Doug Aitken: HOWL,” 2023, at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Photo Stefan Altenburger/©Doug Aitken/Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich and Vienna

The shot that surprised me most is the one where you show a Shell and a BP gas station that are shuttered. This is contrasted with the constant churn of the oil wells. Then there are the scenes showing a beauty pageant for the Maids of Petroleum. How did you stumble on them?

[Laughs.]Well, it’s a celebration of petroleum that happens within this town. I was interested in this being the identity of that community. They see this as a positive energy, a celebration. It was very surreal to watch that.

A couple people bring up the concept of “utopia,” and when you hear the echoing of that word in the film, it comes off very eerie.

It didn’t need much work to come off eerie. First of all, I was really impressed by how open the people that we would speak to were. They would say things like, “No one’s ever asked me these questions before” or “No one’s ever cared about my opinion” or “I’ve never been able to speak about this.” I think for an artwork to give a platform for someone to give their very personal and existential thoughts on where we are is a different form of empowerment for an artwork to create. Socially, it’s a way where an artwork can empower something other than the artist.

As we were working on this piece, the more I heard, the more I realized that utopia should be the verbal narrative of the piece. What happens if you have this almost subconscious poem? And the dialogue to the poem is who you found and what they’ve said, reduced into this minimal structure. Looking at the economy of language in, say, the text in a Lawrence Weiner work and the reduction. That has always been something that’s very attractive for me: a less-is-more form of minimalism.

Installation view of a gallery with its walls wallpapered with aerial views of the desert. On its wall hang four circular sculptures that include mirro elements.
Installation view of “Doug Aitken: HOWL,” 2023, at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Photo Stefan Altenburger/©Doug Aitken/Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich and Vienna

In the rooms leading to the film, there are several sculptures composed of single words. Can you talk about those?

For me, that’s a byproduct of living in a world of almost too much information that has propelled too rapidly. It’s almost an act of reclaiming language, trying to own language again—on a personal level, to possess a single sentence, reduce that to a word, and then took hold onto that and use it as a tool to slow down and decelerate the meaning. The language pieces in the show—HOWL, DRAMA, CONTACT—are these tools are slowing down, an attempt to flip the script on this world of signage, this world of information. Think about the forest of signs that we move through every day—look at this collage wall [of various posters] in front of us. In this idea of pulling these out of this world and reducing them to this minimal essence, can we also create a soft space where the viewer can fall into these words or phrases and reinterpret them on their own? Can they be empowered to read these and bring something of themselves to them, as opposed to the aggression and violence of outward information?

How did you choose the words for the sculpture?

I think they chose me. I’m always collecting words. During this conversation, I’ve thought of a couple. I’m always finding them. I love the haiku quality of reduced language when something can be slippery and the meaning can shift and change.

A sculpture that reads 'DRAMA' with various images of the landscape inside the letters. A shot of blue water fills the wall behind it.
Installation view of “Doug Aitken: HOWL,” 2023, at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Photo Stefan Altenburger/©Doug Aitken/Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich and Vienna

In addition to the five-channel video where you’re surrounded by multiple screens, all of the galleries have an immersive element to them. What was the reasoning behind that?

I wanted to make the exhibition a series of chapters. I wanted each architectural environment to evolve and change continuously. The first work that you run into is this resin-like sculpture, which is about 15 layers of reclaimed ocean plastics that are transformed into liquid and then cast into this slab. These are materials that we’ve collected from the landscape and then reused to create this map or topography of the ocean world. They become this abstract mapping. From there, the work goes into this first space, where the walls are lush, green, and dense, filled with vegetation. That takes you into this geological space. All the images that occupy these words are from spaces that represent this sense of slow time: a landscape in glacial transition. As you move into the second space, where the environment becomes more arid and desert-like, the works become more cyclical. A piece like TERRA reflects the viewer and what’s around them. With that room, I wanted to go more into this abstraction of landscape. And the third chapter, where HOWL is, is about this temporary occupation of place.

Does HOWL refer to Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name?

It’s not a direct reference. As one word, it was something that I was thinking about when I was out in the oil fields. Well, it wasn’t actually something I was thinking of, it was something that I was hearing—the soundscape of this rusted machinery, just moving infinitely.

I’m curious about presenting it here Zurich, instead of Los Angeles, where you’re based. The idea of the American West is perhaps more tangible as a concept in the US than it is in Europe.

Yeah, I was thinking about that idea: is this work too specific for a viewer outside of the US? As people were coming in while we were installing, I found that people were really connecting with it—people who weren’t from the States. They saw it almost without place.

A circular sculpture made of various fragments of glass.
Doug Aitken, Terra (camouflage 108-39C), 2023.
©Doug Aitken/Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich and Vienna

How do you think growing up in Los Angeles impacted you as an artist?

Downtown LA was not what it is today—it was kind of a wasteland. I think that was a powerful time for art in Los Angeles. People who aren’t from there don’t understand that. They think that LA is like the greatest hits, but they don’t understand that there’s this deep underground, very experimental, gender-fluid, restless energy, going way back to ’70s and ’80s—way before there was a spotlight on Los Angeles. That’s an incredible secret history.

Being exposed to a very experimental artistic community, at a young age, I always saw the unwillingness to compromise. I saw the embracing of experimentation as something that you should do. It was almost a given, not an exception. I feel grateful to have grown up in that scene. We live in a society now where art is so incredibly conservative, so commodified, so value-centered, and so obtainable. There’s not so much space for works that are time-based or works that are ethereal or performative. That was the underground of Los Angeles for a long time.

You mentioned Diamond Sea earlier as almost an inverse to this work. Are there other works from across you career that you see as connected to HOWL?

The pandemic was in some ways a new chapter for all of us. It also created a period of self-reflection for most people, of taking inventory of what you value, what you want to assign your energy and time toward. A work like this, for me, it probably, directly or indirectly allowed me to have a slower eye, to fall into concepts and places with a greater sense of depth. That environment influenced and created the work. Even though we finished the work like a week ago, it’s in the air. I definitely found myself, over the pandemic, looking at what I wanted art to be. My practice is quite wide, and I became interested in pushing the extremes of that practice. I think that’s one of the things that HOWL experiments with: it is this song cycle, this poetic composition, but it’s also a dialogue that the viewer is having with the screen. The screen isn’t there to seduce you. In some ways, it’s quite brutal and raw.

Do you see the work as related to the climate crisis as well?

In some ways, I think that was at the core of why I wanted to make this work. I’m not interested in art that is highly didactic. I don’t connect with works that tell me what to do or how to think. I attempt to make works in different frequencies, but that’s constantly on my mind. I’m looking at this definition of landscape, but it’s not the landscape we know. It’s punctured and perforated. It’s a landscape whose veins are being drained of its blood. The amount of extraction that we forced upon this place will last hundreds, even thousands of years.

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