Doug Aitken (American, born 1968)
Chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas; 39 9/16 x 48 1/16 in. (100.5 x 122 cm)
Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2004 (2004.223)
© Doug Aitken
Aitken is best known for multiscreen video installations that examine the ways in which perception and consciousness are transformed by our newly global, technology-driven existence. Passenger belongs to a group of still photographs made in 1999 showing planes in flight, most of which focus on the faint traceries of takeoffs and landings over desolate airport landscapes. In its emphasis on luminosity, color, and atmosphere, this elegant and minimal example reveals Aitken's debt to older California artists such as James Turrell and Robert Irwin. It is also unabashedly sensual: Aitken's high production valuesreminiscent of Technicolor cinematography and glossy advertisingrefer directly to the world of media images that unavoidably condition our responses to the world.
There is something of the sublime in Aitken's photograph, however, in that it describes the limits of the visible while being almost overwhelmingly sumptuous to the eye. Starting from an experience familiar to all air travelers of "two ships passing" in the ether, the artist proposes a more complex statement about the way we perceive reality, namely that the one thing we cannot see is ourselves seeing, and thus that our understanding of the world is always partial and incomplete. Both visually seductive and conceptually provocative, Passenger represents an important contribution to photography from the last decade.