MCA curator's parting sensory exhibition

The Museum of Contemporary Art's departing curator is leaving visitors an exhibition described as a kaleidoscope of moving imagery and sound.

Rachel Kent would have good reason to be royally cheesed off at the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted her swan song as chief curator of Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Doug Aitken: New Era, which opened this week, was, as she puts it, "delayed, delayed, delayed".

So delayed, in fact, that Kent doesn't actually work there anymore.

She's now CEO of Bundanon art museum in at Illaroo in the NSW's Shoalhaven, a role she took up last month following 20 years at the MCA.

And yet, she reasons, the upheaval of the pandemic may have worked in the show's favour.

"In a funny kind of way, the timing couldn't be better, because New Era is strangely prescient of the current moment," she says.

"It feels even more relevant now."

Born in Redondo Beach, California in 1968, multidisciplinary artist Doug Aitken has been a leading light in global contemporary art since claiming the top prize, the Golden Lion, at the 1999 Venice Biennale.

His epic, multi-screen video works, boundary-pushing sculptural installations and moveable-feast art 'happenings' on transcontinental trains and hot-air balloons are just three facets of a multimodal practice that wrestles with myriad themes.

"A lot of what Doug deals with are ideas around human connection and alienation, and he presents these within an array of landscape settings - real, imagined, virtual, nomadic, geographic and psychological," Kent explains.

The survey show borrows its name from one of its key works, New Era (2018), a three-channel video extravaganza presented in a large, mirrored, hexagonal viewing space that visitors enter and exit through darkened tunnels.

Kaleidoscopic in form but cool in tone, the work is homage of sorts to the original Motorola cellular phone and its inventor, Martin Cooper, now in his early 90s and ambivalent as to what he and his team unleashed on the world.

"New Era is all about the invention of untethered communications technology, which was originally developed to unite us and make us more mobile, yet it's had this alienating and disconnecting effect on us for a whole generation," Kent says.

"An impetus for this work occurred when Doug walked into a cafe one day and noticed that none of the customers were talking to whomever they were with. Everyone had their heads down, looking at their devices."

However, Kent is quick to point out, this is the selfsame technology that has got us through the pandemic.

"Imagine lockdown without our screens and devices? So I think this exhibition is doubly meaningful because of the context in which it is now presented."

In another of the exhibition's major works, Migration (Empire) (2008), Aitken released a menagerie of wild animals, one at a time or in pairs, into a succession of homogenous motel rooms across the US and recorded the results.

A nervous deer discovers the minibar. A mountain lion gets frisky with the bed linen. A beaver luxuriates in the bathtub. An owl shreds pillows with abandon.

"It's almost as though the humans have gone and nature has returned," Kent says, adding that Aitken is drawn to transitional and in-between spaces.

This aesthetic is reflected in what is another bespoke viewing environment - the video is projected onto three double-sided screens affixed to steel structures that recall both drive-in cinemas and highway billboards.

By turns fascinating, poignant and surreal, the captured encounters are all the more disconcerting for being entirely unpeopled, and unscripted.

It appears the humans have migrated elsewhere, leaving behind a trail of unremarkable architecture for the animals to inhabit - architecture whose function was to facilitate migration in the first place.

Elsewhere, Underwater Pavilions (2017) is a video work based on a site-specific installation - three geometric and partially mirrored sculptures that Aitken installed off the coast of California's Catalina Island with non-profit conservation group Parley for the Oceans.

"Access is by snorkelling or diving, and you can actually swim through them," Kent says of the floating forms that are safely moored to the ocean floor and have attracted the interest of local sea creatures.

"The ocean, and water more generally, has been a persistent theme for Doug," she says, noting that the artist lives and works in Venice Beach, LA and is a keen surfer.

"Yet he's also looking to expand the idea of what art can be. It doesn't have to be an object in a gallery. It can be an experiential, immersive intervention within a natural landscape."

The show's most ambitious work - and certainly the trickiest to instal - is Sonic Fountain II (2013/15).

This gallery-sized, sculptural and sound installation transforms the drip-drip-drip of a leaky tap into an ear-popping percussive symphony courtesy of a computer-controlled grid of nine valves with precision spigots suspended over a large crater full of milky green water.

"Surrounding the pool is rubble, as though it's erupted outwards, and elsewhere in the space there are other piles of rubble, almost like a lunar landscape," Kent says.

"The spigots release drips, splashes, sprays and jets of water onto the pond below, and when they hit the surface, the sound is amplified.

"Musicality is also very much a part of Doug's language, and he has a long-standing interest in early 20th century sound compositions by composers like John Cage and Terry Riley.

"This is a musical composition, but it's played with water."

Encompassing the past 25 years of Aitken's art making, the show has had almost as long a gestation period, quite apart from the year-long postponement occasioned by COVID.

"I've known Doug for 20 years, and I first showed his work at the MCA in 2003 in an exhibition called Liquid Sea," Kent says.

"Ever since, we've had this ongoing conversation, where I'll go to LA and he'll be like, 'When are we doing our show?' So I'm glad we could finally make it happen, after much delay."

This show's installation took longer than usual, given restrictions on staff numbers, not to mention the complexity of readying for display works such as Sonic Fountain, which requires eight tonnes of rubble, one-and-a-half tonnes of concrete, plus 14,000 litres of water.

A month ago, Kent recalls, The Rocks was "the saddest place you've ever seen".

"Now, thankfully, life is starting to return," she says.

"Seeing people in the gallery for the first time since June feels like a miracle."

Doug Aitken: New Era is at the Museum of Contemporary Art until February 6. For more information, visit mca.com.au