On the Big Screen

One of the great surprises of the end of the summer on the Princeton University campus — and a great treat for returning students and faculty — is the large-screen projection of Doug Aiken’s Migration in front of the Art Museum. After spending a day at the Philadelphia Live Arts & Fringe Festival, we concluded by stopping by the campus to view the 24-minute video. No need to coordinate with the start times, it runs continuously, and there are cafe tables and chairs for your viewing pleasure.

We see wild animals — everything from eagles and owls to beavers and a horse — exploring the insides of cheap motel rooms. The beaver’s in the bathtub, the owl cavorts in the feathers from a pillow, and the horse watches others of its breed on a TV. The animals seem almost comatose — they have lost their wildness. They are almost like stuffed animals. This is a film about the loss of habitat.

Migration (Empire) will be on view through Nov. 14.  Its presentation in the plaza in front of the Museum as a highlight of the fall exhibition season signals a renewed focus in placing major works of modern and contemporary art at sites across Princeton’s campus, both indoors and out.

Active since the early 1990s, Los Angeles-based Doug Aitken is one of the
most prominent video artists working today, and his work is known for its
cinematic scale, visual mastery and intriguingly non-linear narratives. Like
Migration (Empire), many of Aitken’s videos explore the social and
psychological aspects of space, both natural and urban, and ponder the
changing relationship between human beings, living things and the larger
physical environment they inhabit.

“Migration (Empire) is a mesmerizing video that reflects poignantly and
poetically on an experience endemic to modern society: displacement,” said
Kelly Baum, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and the
exhibition’s curator. “Installing it outdoors on Princeton’s beautiful campus
during the height of the fall season gives viewers an opportunity to reflect on
the work’s message in a setting whose mix of the natural and the built
accords perfectly with the narrative arc of Aitken’s video.”

Deeply allegorical, Migration (Empire) pairs footage of industrial and
postindustrial landscapes with a series of surreal scenes featuring a host of
migratory animals, among them a horse, bison, mountain lion, beaver, and
owl. Confined temporarily in banal settings, including nondescript, rather
shopworn motel rooms, the animals are clearly out of place, while the motels
themselves are paradigmatic non-places. Once associated with escape and
adventure, motels have come to convey a particularly American form of
isolation and anonymity. “Aitken’s video is both touching and visually
stunning,” notes Museum Director James Steward, “with its solemnity
tempered by moments of wit and absurdity.” Unfolding at a stately pace, the
work was specifically chosen for one of the campus’s most ceremonial
locations, where it will be projected onto a custom-designed billboard, calling
to mind the highways that gave birth to the motel in the first place.

Aitken’s videos and installations have been featured in screenings and solo
and group installations throughout the world, and his work is included in most
major contemporary art collections in the United States and Europe. The
exhibition of Migration (Empire) in front of the Museum coincides with two
important exhibitions that likewise explore the relationship between nature
and culture, power and landscape, human beings and the environment,
Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space, 2000-2010 and Gauguin’s Paradise
Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints, also on view in Princeton this fall.

Although it will remain in the Museum’s collections and ultimately be seen in
other formats in the galleries, Migration (Empire) plays an important part in
the University’s reinvigorated campus art initiative, which seeks to site art in
the path of everyday life across the Princeton campus. Aitken’s video will
thus take a temporary place among recent commissions by Jim Isermann, Odili
Donald Odita and Kendall Buster for new buildings on campus.

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