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What is the West? From sunsets to gangbangers to 'no idea,' 1,000 takes in new Doug Aitken book

November 9, 2010 | 10:48 am


In trying to stage a gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art that does not feel staged -- or even much like a gala -- Doug Aitken has also created a book for the event that is not simply, and certainly not entirely, his creation.

His concept was straightforward: Find 1,000 people in L.A. to answer the question, "What is your idea of the West?"

"I wanted to create something steeped in this region, in the legacy of creativity in Los Angeles,” says Aitken, who was born in Redondo Beach and now lives in Venice. “And I thought maybe the purest way to start the project would be to open the question up to everyone -- from mechanics to homeless people to real estate agents."

So the artist and a couple of colleagues set out to do the interviews in person. Some answers -- "sunsets over the Pacific" or "surfers" or "the land of hope and promises" -- were to be expected. Others -- "James Joyce" or "gangbangers" or "dust" -- were more startling. Then there’s a chorus of "I don't knows" (shown above).

The book, published just in time for Saturday’s event at MOCA, contains all 1,000 of these answers, plus related photos, small and full-bleed. Many images were also crowd-sourced in a way, culled from the Internet or photo databases. Still, the pacing of the visual montage is pure Aitken, who is best known for his rhythmic video artworks.

Guests at the MOCA gala -- the museum calls it “a happening” -- will receive a book on their chair at the dinner table. "I don't like gift bags; I like gifts," the artist says.

He adds that some phrases from the book will appear on the clothes of musical performers that evening, which include Beck, Devendra Banhart, Caetano Veloso and some percussionists. After the MOCA event, the book, co-published by the museum and D.A.P. in the U.S., will be for sale through the usual venues.

So what is Aitken’s idea of the West? Joan Didion is his answer, credited in the book to “Doug, artist.” Didion is shown in vintage 1970s pictures looking every bit the worried observer, standing on the edge of the action with cigarette or drink in hand.

"I had to get Joan in there," he says. "She's like the James Joyce of the West -- capturing something very elusive."

-- Jori Finkel

Image from "Idea of the West" by Doug Aitken, published by MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) with D.A.P. (Distributed Art Publishers, New York), 2010. Credit: Doug Aitken Studio



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