I want to make this clear from the onset: I have not seen Doug Aitken’s House; I have only read others’ accounts of it. A performance piece is a strange thing to write about then, I know. Alas, I have gained something of an insight, compliments to the myriads of reviews that discuss Aitken’s work. I guess you could say that, through various art blogs, I have gotten a healthy portion of the Aitken’s diet (I couldn’t resist).
Previously installed at LA’s Regen Projects, House is anything but. It is, as Catlin Moore of the dailyserving.com aptly described, simply “rubble potpourri.” Aitken’s House is one of splinters, shards, scraps, and other alliterative s-words denoting wreckage (scintillas?). Centered amidst the debris sits a table with bench seats and two, back-to-back flat-screen televisions. The screens play a video, as described by the LA Times Christopher Knight, of “a neatly dressed older couple — the artist’s parents, according to the gallery handout at Regen Projects — are seated opposite each other, hands resting on the tabletop and eyes locked. Over the next several minutes, the modest house (which the viewer now stands in and among) around them slowly but steadily collapses, falling into heaps of ruined debris.”
That the couple is stoically unmoved is jarring. Their stoicism is an affront to the viewer. In the words of Peter Eleey, “’Do we stand in the calm center of this hurricane of modern life,’ the artist asks, ‘or do we step into its turbulence? And do we have a choice?’ In similar situations (earthquakes), I have dove headlong into densely cluttered closets, begging for safety. In similar situations, you, others like you and me, would do the same. And yet, this couple sits, staring longingly into each other’s eyes. They don’t merely step into the turbulence; they wallow in it.
I agree with Catlin Moore’s assertion that this is a work preoccupied with “decay and morality.” And, I also agree with Christopher Knight’s belief that this work comments upon a “Contented resignation to human fate.” Indeed, it is these things. But, still, it is more (Forgive me, if you think I’m reading too deeply into the work).
There is an old tenet of Catholism, stating: “Contrition of the heart is a second table after a shipwreck.”
To be clear, I have no religious motivations here. I am simply looking for a way to transition to my final point, so if you don’t mind…
Contrition, in the Catholic sense, is sorrow for sins. Mostly, such sorrow for misdeeds and the salvation that follows is thought to be the product of an immense guilt and fear (Those John Francis “Jack” Donaghy fans will know what I am referring to. For those of you who aren’t, just know that guilt is typically taught to be the driving force of repentance, thus the need for Hail Marys and the payment of tithes). And yet, contrition does not need to be the result of a crushing guilt. Instead, it can be (and for some, it is) the result of a crushing love. Such contrition is the table, the life raft, after a shipwreck.
This is the table in Aitken’s House. It is a sorrow for the enclosing destruction; it is the calm of the life raft floating through the debris; it is (sorry to be sappy) love.
When I saw the stills of Aitken’s work, when I read descriptions of it, I thought of a passage from Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, which, for those of you who haven’t read it, recount’s Frankl’s harrowing life in various Nazi Concentration Camps. Despite the shear inhumanity of his surroundings and of his life, Frankl was able to come to this realization:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss […] In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.
Indeed, the couple in Aitken’s House is surrounded by the “utter desolation;” their achievement in the work is simply “in enduring sufferings.” Yes, the couple endured the dismantling. They lasted despite the house. They survived together, through love and in love. The table was their vehicle. It was their salvation.