Nick Hackworth

Doug Aitken/New Ocean, Serpentine Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

The title New Ocean is appropriate enough for a show that attempts to induce in us a sense of the sublime, updated for modern times. Across many screens of various shapes and sizes installed within the darkened confines of the Serpentine, Californian artist Doug Aitken shows us films depicting a natural world of incomprehensible vastness.

To emphasise its magnitude, Aitken constantly plays with our sense of perspective and scale. We might be looking at the highly magnified image of a single drip of water, watching each droplet swell and fall when fat, when suddenly we will be presented with an upside vista of a sea stretching into the horizon. Or see the slow formation of ice crystals replaced on the screen by a vast cracking ice sheet.

Serving as a counterpoint to these pervasive images of the organic are two pieces, each inhabiting their own room, that follow respectively, the lives of a young man and a young woman. There is a vague narrative at work, but the tale is disjointed and fragmented. First we see the young man running through endless, sterile institutional corridors. Then he is walking though a desert and finally he is wondering exhausted, through a neon-lit urban scene. Similarly the story of the young woman flits from sequences of graceful gymnastic movements to shots of her riding a metro staring wistfully at the dark cityscape beyond the window.

In common with Mike Nelson who is currently occupying the ICA, Aitken has utilised the entirety of the gallery in which he is exhibiting. This, combined with the slick film production skills on show (Aitken also does commercial film work) and the soothing sounds that fill the gallery, serves to create a seamless environment into which we are immersed. Thus Aitken shows us worlds within worlds on screen and attempts to make the Serpentine into his world within the larger, more hostile world around us.

By showing us fragmented images of nature, interspersed with the mysterious shards of two modern lives, Aitken succeeds in communicating a Zen-like appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things. But it does so vaguely and, in that vagueness, one is never certain as to whether to read a sophisticated acceptance of the inherent subjectivity of all things, or instead, the avoidance of the more difficult task of creating a coherent communication that delivers a specific point.

Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens. Until 25 November.